CHENNAI, India (AP) — An Indian state ruled Wednesday that seven men serving life sentences for the 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi should be freed because they have served more than 20 years in prison.
Critics immediately slammed the decision by Tamil Nadu state, where the men are serving their sentences, saying it was an attempt to win over Tamil voters in this year's national elections.
Rajiv Gandhi was killed by an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber in May 1991 as he campaigned for a return to the post of prime minister. He was 47 years old. Seventeen other people, including the bomber, also were killed in the attack.
The federal government must approve the state's decision before the men can be released. But Jayaram Jayalalitha, Tamil Nadu's top elected official, said she would wait only three days.
"If (the federal government) fails to respond in three days, we will release all of them on our own," she told the state legislature.
Rahul Gandhi, the son of Rajiv Gandhi and Congress party vice president, criticized the state's decision.
"If some people could kill the (former) prime minister and they are being released, how can common people get justice in this country?" he asked.
Rahul Gandhi's mother, Sonia Gandhi, said in 1999 that nobody should be hanged in the case.
The assassination was orchestrated by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels to avenge Gandhi's decision to send Indian troops to intervene in the country's civil war in the 1980s.
While the convicts have been reviled across much of India, many ethnic Tamils in the south believe they were duped into taking part in a plot they knew little about. The people of Tamil Nadu have a strong affinity with Tamils living in northern Sri Lanka.
With Indian national elections due to be held by May, two powerful state parties led by Jayalalitha and her rival, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, are eager to gain the support of Tamils sympathetic to the cause of Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka.
Gnani, a Tamil writer and political commentator, said both Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi had supported harsh punishment for Gandhi's assassins in the past.
"This change of heart is because the national elections are around the corner," said Gnani, who uses one name.
The state government's decision came a day after India's Supreme Court commuted three of the seven convicts' death sentences to life in prison. Their lawyers argued that executing the three now, after they had already served long prison terms, would amount to an unconstitutional double punishment.
Yug Chaudhry, an attorney for the prisoners, said Wednesday that the men were entitled to be freed because they had served more than 20 years.
Historically in India, people given life sentences spent about 14 years in prison before being released. In 2012, however, the Supreme Court said life terms mean convicts should spend their remaining years in prison.
The seven convicts, who were among 26 people convicted of playing minor roles in the plot to kill Gandhi, are the only ones still in prison for the assassination. Some others died in prison or were released.
Rajiv Gandhi's mother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated while prime minister in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards after she ordered the Indian army into the Sikhs' holiest shrine in the northern city of Amritsar to stamp out a separatist campaign.