India’s top court has ordered the release of a man convicted over the 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
A bench headed by Justice L Nageswara Rao invoked extraordinary powers on Wednesday to grant relief to AG Perarivalan, 50, who was already granted parole in March.
He was sentenced to death in 1998 for supplying batteries used in a bomb that killed Gandhi in the southern state of Tamil Nadu on May 21, 1991. Later his punishment was commuted to a life sentence.
The bombing was carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Sri Lankan armed separatist group.
Gandhi’s killing by a suicide bomber was seen as retaliation for a 1987 Indian government pact with Sri Lanka to disarm the Tamil fighters.
India later withdrew troops deployed to the island country after losing 1,200 of them at the hands of the rebels.
Perarivalan was arrested in 1991 and was 19 at the time of the assassination.
‘Air of liberation’
His case was mired in legal wranglings since he filed a mercy petition in 2015 between the state and the central government.
Tamil Nadu’s governor passed the decision on the plea to India’s president, but the Supreme Court of India ruled that this did not have “constitutional value” and invoked special powers to order Perarivalan’s release.
Speaking to the Indian Express newspaper on Wednesday, Perarivalan recalled years spent in a cramped 1.8 metre (6 feet) by 2.7 metre (9 feet) 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 are still in jail serving life sentences in the case.
Rajiv Gandhi became India’s youngest-ever leader after his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in October 1984. He ruled until losing an election five years later.
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.