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SC lock on freeing Rajiv killers

New Delhi, Feb. 27: The Supreme Court today restrained the Tamil Nadu government from releasing the four other convicts jailed for involvement in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and said it would “lay down guidelines” on granting remission to prisoners.

“The state government shall maintain status quo, till further orders,” a bench headed by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam said, formally staying any move to free Nalini, Robert Payas, Jeyakumar and Ravichandran.

The directive, on an additional application by the Union government, came exactly a week after the court had on February 20 stayed the release of the other three — Murugan, Santhan and A.G. Perarivalan — whose death sentences it had commuted to life term two days earlier.

The Centre had moved the additional application as its first had named only the three who had been spared the noose on February 18. It realised that the Jayalalithaa government, which had threatened to release all the seven, might free the other four as the top court’s February 20 order was technically confined to Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan.

The court had then told both the state government and the Centre to maintain status quo. But there was confusion over the order, with legal circles divided on whether it applied to only the three taken off the death row or all the seven who have been in jail since 1991.

Rajiv was assassinated on May 21, 1991, while campaigning in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu.

The court also agreed to examine the state government’s plea challenging the maintainability of the petition filed by the Centre under Article 32 of the Constitution. Under Article 32, a citizen or a group of citizens can move the apex court for enforcement of their fundamental rights.

The normal option would have been to file a petition under Article 131, which says the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in any dispute between the Government of India and one or more states.

In this case, the Centre had filed two separate applications under Article 32 challenging the Jayalalithaa government’s decision to release the seven convicts.

“We have to consider which is the appropriate government. You must know the procedure. The prisoner has to file a proper application before the court (magistrate) concerned,” the bench, which also included Justices Ranjan Gogoi and N.V. Ramana, said, adding that the magistrate concerned would “examine” whether proper procedure has been followed.

“We will solve this problem within a week. Every state must be aware of the rule and procedures to be followed. Our intention is not to release them (the prisoners). We will lay down the guidelines to the state governments,” Justice P. Sathasivam told the counsel for Tamil Nadu, while staying the release of the four.

Senior counsel Rakesh Dwivedi, who appeared for the state government, questioned the maintainability of the Centre’s petition filed under Article 32. “How can the central government rush to this court under Article 32 saying its fundamental right has been violated?” he asked.

“Has the Centre rushed or you have rushed to us challenging the maintainability?” the bench countered. “Anyway, we will first examine the maintainability of the petition and then decide the other issue (relating to Jayalalithaa’s decision to free the convicts).”

The bench posted the matter to March 6, the day it had fixed earlier for further hearings.