Nalini (R), one of the accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, seen in a court in this file photo. Reuters.
Nalini (R), one of the accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, seen in a court in this file photo. Reuters.Reuters

Countering the Tamil Nadu government's decision to release all seven assassins of Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian Supreme Court, on 20 February, asked the state government to maintain status quo in the matter.

Gandhi, a former Prime Minister of India, was killed in an election rally near Chennai on 21 May 1991.

Conceding that a state has the authority to do so under its remission powers in the criminal procedure code, the apex court pointed out the state's lapses in the procedure it followed in taking the decision.

The SC has adjourned the case for further hearing on 6 March.

The TN government on 19 February took the decision to releae the convicts - Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan, following a major reprieve on 18 February from the apex court. The SC had commuted their death sentences to life. Four others - Nalini, Robert Pyas, Jayakumar and Ravichandran are undergoing life sentence.

For the commutation, the SC cited inordinate delay by the Indian government in considering their mercy petitions. Gandhi's killers were convicted by a TADA court in January 1998 and were awarded death sentences, which was confirmed by the apex court in May 1999.

The TADA court in Chennai had awared death penalties to all 26 accused in the assassination case. But the Supreme Court confirmed capital punishment only in the cases of Murugan, Santhan (both Sri Lankan Tamils), A G Perarivalan and Nalini, wife of Murugan. Following the TN cabinet decision and the state Governor's assent, Nalini escaped the noose in 2000.

Here is the timeline of the infamous trial of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination.

1991: On 21 May, India's former PM Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber at an election rally in Chennai's Sriperambudur. The killers belonged to LTTE, Sri Lanka.

1992: On 20 May, Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the CBI filed the chargesheet in the case, before the TADA designated court at Poonamallee, Chennai.

1998: On 28 January, TADA Court awarded death sentences to all 26 accused.

1999: On 11 May, the Supreme Court sentenced Nalini, Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan to death, commuted death sentence of three others to life and freed 19 others. On 8 October, the apex court dismissed the appeals of the accused, confirmed the death sentence awarded to Nalini, Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan. On 17 October, the four death row convicts sent their clemency petitions to the Tamil Nadu Governor. On 27 October, the Governor rejected the clemency petitions. On 25 November, the Madras High Court quashed the Governor’s rejection of clemency petitions and directed the Governor to pass a fresh order after obtaining the state Cabinet’s views.

2000: On 19 April, TN State Cabinet, chaired by the then-Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, decided to recommend commuting the death sentence of Nalini alone. On 21 April, Governor accepted cabinet decision to commute death sentence of Nalini. On 28 April, the TN government forwarded the clemency pleas of Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan to the President. 

2011: On 12 August, Union Home Ministry communicated to the state government about the President’s decision to reject the clemency petitions. On 26 August, execution of three convicts were fixed for 9 September 2011. On 30 August, the Tamil Nadu Assembly adopted a resolution urging the President to commute the death sentence of the three. On 30 August, the Madras High Court stayed execution of Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan on their plea. Petitions transferred to Supreme Court later.

2012: On May 1, the Supreme Court said that it would hear the petitions of three convicts.

2014: On 18 February, the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence on the grounds of delay in disposing their mercy pleas. The court also said the state government may consider releasing the convicts under the powers vested with it. On 19 February, TN Cabinet decided to immediately release Santhan, Murugan, Perarivalan, Nalini, Robert Pious, Jayakumar and Ravichandran; sends its decision to the Centre under Section 435 CrPC. On 20 February, the SC asked the TN government to maintain status quo and not to release the convicts immediately.