The Centre told Madras High Court on Friday that the Governor of Tamil Nadu was at liberty to decide on the petition for remission of life sentence filed by A G Perarivalan, one of the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.
Over the last several days, demands for the release of Perarivalan have resurfaced strongly in public conversations in Tamil Nadu. The hashtag #ReleasePerarivalan spiked in social media after Perarivalan wrote to Governor Banwarilal Purohit to remind him about the state Cabinet’s decision granting him remission, which has been pending with Raj Bhavan for over 16 months.
Perarivalan, who is lodged in Chennai’s Puzhal Central Prison, wrote to the Governor on January 25, days after the Supreme Court rebuked the CBI for failing to make progress in its investigation of the larger conspiracy behind the assassination 29 years ago.
On January 21, a Supreme Court Bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Deepak Gupta said the multi-disciplinary monitoring agency (MDMA) “have done nothing, nor do they want to do anything”.
The CBI-led MDMA was set up in 1998. The Supreme Court is hearing Perarivalan’s plea seeking suspension of his life sentence until the MDMA completes its probe into the cross-border aspects of the conspiracy.
The Centre’s affidavit in the Madras High Court on Friday came in a separate petition filed by Nalini, another convict in the case.
Perarivalan alias Arivu was 19 when he was arrested in June 1991. He was accused of having bought two battery cells for Sivarasan, the LTTE man who masterminded the conspiracy, and which were used in the bomb that killed Rajiv. Perarivalan remained on death row for 23 years. On February 18, 2014, a Supreme Court Bench of then Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam and Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Shiva Kirti Singh commuted the death sentences of Perarivalan and two other convicts, Murugan and Santhan, into imprisonment for life.
What strengthened Perarivalan’s claim of innocence was an admission in November 2013 by V Thiagarajan, a retired CBI SP, that he had altered Perarivalan’s statement in custody to make it read like a confession, which eventually played a crucial role in getting Perarivalan the maximum punishment.
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Thiagarajan, who had recorded the statements of Perarivalan and other accused in 1991, said that while Perarivalan had accepted that he had supplied the batteries, he had not said that he was aware that those batteries would be used to make the bomb. That second part had been his “interpretation”, Thiagarajan said.
The statement was recorded as: “…Moreover, I bought two nine volt battery cells (Golden Power) and gave them to Sivarasan. He used only these to make the bomb explode.”
However, Perarivalan had not actually said the second sentence — and this, Thiagarajan admitted, put him in a “dilemma”. “It (the statement) wouldn’t have qualified as a confession statement without his admission of being part of the conspiracy. There I omitted a part of his statement, and added my interpretation. I regret it,” Thiagarajan said.
What Thiagarajan added to the statement was, in Tamil, “Ithu than Rajiv Gandhiyin kolakku payan paduthappettathu,” which translated into English as “He used only these to make the bomb explode.”
In an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court, Thiagarajan confirmed that Perarivalan had never said that he knew of the conspiracy, or that he had knowingly bought the batteries to be used to make the bomb.
In 1999, the Supreme Court acquitted 19 accused and suspended TADA provisions in the case — but it upheld Perarivalan’s TADA confession, observing it was “believable”.
While Perarivalan’s ‘altered’ confession has kept him in prison, the CBI has failed to complete the investigation into the larger conspiracy. Perarivalan’s lawyers have argued that while he was sentenced to death for buying two battery cells, there is no evidence about the bomb, the bombmaker, where the bomb was tested, and who supplied the RDX, the military-grade explosive that was used. Perarivalan’s petition in the Supreme Court questioning the progress of the MDMA’s probe over more than two decades brought embarrassment to the CBI last month.
The question of remission of his sentence remains stuck in the Tamil Nadu Raj Bhavan.
Article 161 gives the Governor the “power to grant pardons, reprieves, respites or remissions of punishment or to suspend, remit or commute the sentence of any person convicted of any offence against any law relating to a matter to which the executive power of the State extends”.
In an earlier order passed on September 6, 2018, a Supreme Court Bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi, Navin Sinha and K M Joseph had noted that Perarivalan had filed an application before the Governor under Article 161, and that “the authority concerned will be at liberty to decide the said application as deemed fit”. Perarivalan had told the court that he had filed his mercy plea before then Governor K Rosaiah on December 30, 2015.
Following the Supreme Court’s order, the state Cabinet had decided on September 9, 2018, to recommend to the Governor (Purohit) to remit sentences of all seven convicts serving life terms in the case, including Perarivalan. The government’s decision was welcomed by both the Opposition DMK and the AIADMK’s TTV Dhinakaran faction.
In its affidavit in the Madras High Court on Friday, however, the Centre has underlined that the “Governor is a Constitutional functionary and he has discretion to decide on the petition under the powers conferred upon him by the Constitution”. It has said that the Home Ministry has already rejected the Tamil Nadu government’s proposal to release the convicts, and that the mercy petition remains pending before the Governor.
No time limit is prescribed for a Governor or the President for disposal of a mercy plea.