Three decades later, convict in former Indian PM Gandhi assassination freed

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New Delhi — India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the release of A.G. Perarivalan, who was convicted of involvement in the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

Gandhi was killed by an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber while campaigning in an election in the southern Indian town of Sriperumbudur in May 1991. His killing was seen as an act of retaliation after he sent Indian peacekeepers to Sri Lanka in 1987.

Perarivalan was convicted in 1991 of purchasing the batteries used to detonate the bomb that killed Gandhi.

In May 2021, the Tamil Nadu state government allowed Perarivalan to leave on parole, using a provision in the Tamil Nadu Prison manual.

The Supreme Court took a lenient view of Perarivalan, saying he was 19 years old at the time of arrest and had been jailed for over 30 years, including 16 years on death row and 29 years in solitary confinement.

Speaking to the Indian Express newspaper on Wednesday, Perarivalan recalled years spent in a cramped 6 feet (1.8 m) by 9 feet (2.7 m) cell during his time in solitary confinement.

“A room in which I had nothing but empty walls to look at,” he said, describing obsessively counting bricks on the wall, measuring the door and bolts and imagining smells he craved.

Six others people, including a woman, are still in jail and are awaiting a verdict in the case.

The court said Perarivalan was released after considering his “satisfactory conduct in jail and during parole” and “chronic ailments.”

Gandhi’s widow, Sonia, is head of India’s main opposition Congress party while their son, Rahul, has been leading its campaign for elections. A Congress party spokesman said on Wednesday the party was deeply saddened by the court’s decision.

Many in the state of Tamil Nadu celebrated the verdict as a victory for human rights.

“My best wishes and warm welcome to Perarivalan who is set to fully breathe the air of liberation after more than 30 years of imprisonment,” Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin tweeted.