New Delhi - India's top court Friday ordered the release of six people convicted over the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Gandhi was 46 when he was killed by a woman suicide bomber at an election rally in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in 1991.
The assassination was carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Sri Lankan armed separatist group. India's supreme court said the convicts were being released based on their "satisfactory conduct" in prison and that they had served over three decades of jail time.
The six -- three of whom had been condemned to death before their sentences were commuted -- are the last still in prison for the assassination, although two were already out on parole.
"I am very happy... I am very thankful to each and everybody," Nalini Sriharan, one of the two on parole, told broadcaster CNN News18. The "last 32 years have been a struggle", she added. She and her husband -- another of the convicts ordered released by the court -- were both initially condemned to death. Earlier this year the court freed another convict who had faced execution, AG Perarivalan, citing good conduct.
Gandhi became India's youngest prime minister after his mother and predecessor Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. The family's Congress party dominated Indian politics for decades and Rajiv's widow Sonia remains the most powerful figure in the organization, while their son Rahul is seen as current Prime Minister Narendra Modi's main political opponent. Rajiv Gandhi's killing was largely seen as a response to his move to send Indian forces to Sri Lanka in 1987 to disarm the Tamil rebels.
India later withdrew its troops after losing more than 1,000 of them in fights with the rebels. The release of the convicts has been the subject of much debate in India, and Congress condemned the court decision as "totally unacceptable" and "completely erroneous".
"It is most unfortunate that the Supreme Court has not acted in consonance with the spirit of India on this issue," the party said, tweeting a statement by senior member Jairam Ramesh.
But India has a significant Tamil population, and state governments in Tamil Nadu have repeatedly called for the convicts to be freed. Earlier this year, current Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin tweeted a picture of him hugging Perarivalan in Chennai after his release.
Gandhi's son has spoken about how he and his sister Priyanka had forgiven their father's killers over the years. "We were very upset and hurt and for many years we were quite angry," the Indian Express newspaper quoted Rahul as saying in 2018. But they had since forgiven them, he said, "in fact, completely".