India's Supreme Court yesterday spared three killers of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi from the hangman's noose, citing delays in the case 23 years after his assassination by a Tamil suicide bomber.
The top court headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam handed the three life in prison on the grounds that successive Indian presidents had taken 11 years to decide their pleas for mercy against execution.
The convicts, Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan, all members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), can also be released if the southern Indian state Tamil Nadu government grants them remission, the court ruled.
A bench of the apex court did not accept the government's view that the convicts did not deserve mercy.
The Indian Attorney General Goolam E Vahanvati had said there was "not a word of remorse" in the convicts' petition for mercy.
At the previous hearing Vahanvati had said "they (the convicts) are leading a disciplined life, entertaining and educating inmates, so there is no agony, torture or dehumanising effect due to delay."
A lawyer for the three men hailed the judgement as "humane," adding that they were now living in hope of one day being released from prison.
The verdict follows the Supreme Court's January 21 order commuting the death sentences of 15 convicts, announcing that "inordinate and inexplicable" delays in carrying out executions were grounds for reducing their original punishment.
Santhan, Perarivalan and Murugan were convicted in 1998 for Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in May 1991.
Their mercy petition was sent to the president of India, the last stage in the process of appeals, in 2000 and was rejected 11 years later. Their hanging was stayed in 2011 on the orders of the Madras High Court.
Murugan's wife Nalini was also sentenced to death but it was commuted to life on the intervention of Rajiv Gandhi's widow and India's ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi.
Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a woman suicide bomber on May 21 at Sriperambudur, near Chennai, in Tamil Nadu.
Rajiv had become India's youngest ever prime minister after his mother, former premier Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in October 1984. He ruled until losing an election five years later.
His killing was seen as retaliation for a 1987 Indian government pact with the Sri Lankan government to disarm the guerrillas, who had been trained and armed by New Delhi in the early 1980s.
After that pact, the LTTE fought Indian troops deployed to Sri Lanka by Rajiv Gandhi's government to supervise the accord. India withdrew its troops after 32 months in which it lost 1,200 soldiers at the hands of the rebels.