Judge V.Navaneetham of the Special Designated Court in Poonamalee, near Chennai, India, made judicial history on Wedenesday, when he sentenced to death by hanging, all the 26 LTTErs accused of conspiring to kill former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.
The actual killer, the suicide bomber Dhanu, and the kingpins of the conspiracy, namely, the one-eyed Sivarasan, and his accomplice, Subha, had killed themselves. This left the case with 26 persons who were adjuncts to the conspiracy with varying degrees of involvement.
D.R.Karthikeyan, the chief of the Special Investigating Team (SIT), which probed the assassination, said that the sentence serves as a warning to terrorists, and that the judgment is timely, given the fact that India is being threatened by terrorism. The punishment is seen as exemplary. But the defence views it as a very harsh judgment, given the fact that most of the 26 persons involved had not committed any specific, overt act to invite the supreme punishment, the snuffing out of life. It remains to be seen as to what the Appeal Court, in this case, the Supreme Court, does, when the defence goes before it in a week’s time.
But the case and the judgment have wide political implications going beyond the borders of India. Although the defence maintains that links with the LTTE had not been established beyond doubt by the prosecution, there is little doubt that the LTTE had ordered the killing. Earlier, the defence counsels had admitted to this writer that the Tigers had done it, and that the SIT had done a thorough job. Their only plea was that the kingpins had disappeared and that those before the courts were small fry of peripheral importance.
The fact that a court has now concluded that the LTTE is the culprit, and that the conspirators had no links with nobody other than their bosses in the LTTE hierarchy, takes the wind out of the sails of the Jain Commission, which tried to pin the blame on the then DMK and V.P.Singh governments.
The Jain Commission had created monumental confusions by entertaining anybody and everybody who had a theory on the murder. The many red herrings thrown on the path both by innocent busybodies and mischievous elements, were coming as a boon to the defence but were driving the prosecution nuts.
The Jain Commission even demanded the case diaries, which led to an unseemly tussle between the prosecution and the court on the one hand, and the commission on the other. These controversies were only some of the reasons for the inordinate delay in concluding the case, which had dragged on for five years.
Meanwhile there was speculation that Narasimha Rao, the then Prime Minister, wanted the trial to drag on because he had something to hide.
This was said to be annoying Rajiv Gandhi’s widow, Sonia, who was the power behind throne in the ruling Congress party. Finally, Rao had to ask Commerce Minister and Sonia loyalist, P.Chidambaram, to look into the delay and see that the trial was speeded up. At Chidambarams’s instance, the prosecution reduced the number of witnesses.
Now that the LTTE has been branded the killer, any New Delhi - LTTE understanding is ruled out for the foreseeable future. The judgment comes as a blow to the Tigers whom of late, have been hoping that India would bury the hatchet and support them again.
Political parties in Tamil Nadu, which had distanced themselves from the LTTE after the killing of Rajiv, namely, parties like the DMK, would not dare go back to the LTTE again. Others who were toying with the idea of hobnobbing with the LTTE, like the PMK and MDMK, would give it up. They have already distanced themselves in the last few months. George Fernandes’ plea that the BJP and its allies should support the LTTE will have few takers.
The verdict identifying the LTTE as the killer in this landmark case, would further weaken the LTTE internationally. Its case against the US ban, pending in an American court, would be weakened, as the verdict could be deemed to confirm its terrorist nature. Even the case against the deportation of Suresh Manickavasagam from Canada, would suffer.
As regards the Sri Lankan government, it should derive strength from the judgment. It adds further justification to its own decision to ban the LTTE. With the closure of the trial, one wonders what would happen to the demand for the extradition of LTTE chief, Prabhakaran, who was a ‘‘proclaimed offender’’ in this case, even if he was not tried in absentia.
The judgment would, however, not be welcomed by the Sri Lankan Tamils, both in the island and overseas, as they think that the never say die LTTE is their saviour.
The very stringent sentence awarded to the accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case by a Madras court on Wednesday, should be a warning to terrorists who want to dismember India and create chaos, D.R. Karthikeyan, chief of the Special Investigating Team (SIT) which probed the assassination, said in a telephonic interview. Here are excerpts:
Q: The judge has given the death sentence to all the 26 accused of conspiracy to kill Rajiv Gandhi. What is the significance of this judgment?
A: The judgment shows that India is not a soft nation which can be played around with easily. It is a strong warning to terrorists, at a time when India is threatened by terrorism.
I remember Jawaharlal Nehru once said: “If India wins, all of us win, and if India loses, all of us lose.’’
Q: One of the defence counsels said that giving the supreme penalty of death was grossly unfair when those on trial were not the actual killers and when only some of them had indulged in specific, overt acts. What is your reaction?
A: It would be improper for me to comment on the sentence.
All I can say is that the judgment flowed from the facts placed before the court.
As for the penalty, the Indian Penal Code makes it very clear that in a case of murder, participating in the conspiracy to murder is as bad as committing the murder.
Moreover, the person these people had conspired to kill, was no ordinary man.
Q: The defence counsel says that the prosecution had not established the link between the accused and the crime, and that the link with the LTTE was not established except through some generalities about the antagonism between the LTTE and Rajiv Gandhi.
A: The court was given voluminous evidence in each case. We would not file a charge sheet if there was no clinching evidence.
The links with the crime and with the LTTE were clear in every case.
Q: Can you recall the high points in the investigations?
A: When they were handed over to me on May 26, 1991, it was a blind case. We had no hope of detection. The killer had blown herself up on the spot.
No one was caught red handed. It was not like the Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi assassination cases, in which the killers were caught red handed.
Even the Intelligence agencies said that they had no clue. But I had faith. I knew that faith and hard work would help me out.
Q: What was your approach to the investigations?
A: I took up the case on two conditions; that there would be no political interference and that I would not use third degree methods.
Once these were accepted, we set about collecting evidence systematically, guided by the time honoured principle that the crime should lead to the criminal and not vice-versa.
Q: What were the low points?
A: You know what sort of problems Delhi created!
Q: The defence even now claims that the link with the LTTE was not established except in a presumptive way. What would be your comment?
A: When I took over the investigations, I was hoping that the LTTE had not done it.
While on visits to Sri Lanka I had seen what they could do. But as the investigations proceeded, everything pointed to the LTTE and nobody else.
Excerpts from a telephonic interview with S. Dorai Swamy, a leading defence lawyer in the case.
Q: What is your reaction to the judgement?
A: This is the first time in Indian judicial history that a court has sentenced all accused in a murder case to death. In the absence of any specific, overt act on the part of most of the accused, the judgment was totally erroneous.
Q: What do you think of the investigations?
A: The SIT had not established conspiracy. There was no evidence at all. The prosecution had not presented evidence to connect each of the accused to the crime. There was no evidence to show where the belt bomb was built and how the RDX was procured. The accused were not aware of their involvement till they were arrested!
According to the prosecution itself, till the dry run at the public meeting addressed by V.P.Singh in Madras on May 7, 1991, only three of them knew about the plan to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi. These were Sivarasan, who master minded it, Subha, his accomplice, and Dhanu, the suicide bomber. Dhanu was killed in the blast and Sivarasan and Subha committed suicide while being hounded by the SIT.
Nalini, for example, did not know that Rajiv Gandhi was going to be killed even on the day he was to be killed. According to her confessional statement, even at the election meeting in Sriperumbudur, all that Subha told her was that Dhanu was going to create history that day.
The death sentence for photographer Subha Sundaram was too much, because his only crime was that he had tried to retrieve his camera, which he had lent to Haribabu for covering the Rajiv rally. (According to the prosecution, Haribabu, who was killed in the blast, had been engaged to shoot the assassination for the LTTE’s album).
Q: Was the link with the LTTE established?
A: Here again, the prosecution could not establish it except in a general way saying that the killing flowed from strained relations between the LTTE and Rajiv Gandhi, after the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the subsequent IPKF - LTTE war.
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