Possible release of Gandhi's killers sparks political tensions in India
India's government was embroiled in a dispute with a powerful state that plans to free seven people convicted for the 1991 killing of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in political jostling ahead of a general election.
The assassination by a suicide bomber is an emotional issue for India's ruling Congress party, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which is gearing up for an election expected to start in April. Gandhi's widow, Sonia, is Congress' president and their son, Rahul, is leading the party's election campaign.
The state of Tamil Nadu plans to release the convicts in what is seen as a pitch for votes by Jayaram Jayalalithaa, chief minister of the southern state where there is some sympathy for the killers' political motives.
Jayalalithaa, who announced the plan this week, is thought to have national ambitions.
"The assassination of Shri Rajiv Gandhi was an attack on the soul of India," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said in a statement. "The release of the killers of a former prime minister of India and our great leader, as well as several other innocent Indians, would be contrary to all principles of justice."
Gandhi was killed while campaigning in the state by an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist rebel group from neighbouring Sri Lanka. Twenty-six people were convicted in 1998 for their roles in planning and carrying out the murder.
Ethnic Tamils are the majority community in Tamil Nadu and a minority in Sri Lanka where the government finally crushed the LTTE rebels in 2009, after a 26-year war.
India's government also filed a petition at the Supreme Court arguing that Jayalalithaa's state government did not have the power to free the ethnic Tamil convicts. The court blocked the chief minister from releasing three of them until the case was resolved and scheduled a hearing for March 6.
"Our stand is that the state of Tamil Nadu is fully empowered to consider the release of these persons," Rakesh Trivedi, a lawyer representing the state, told reporters outside the Supreme Court.
Whether Tamil Nadu would free the other four convicts before the case concluded was not yet clear,Trivedi said.