Rediff Logo News Banner Ads Find/Feedback/Site Index
January 28, 1998


E-Mail this story to a friend

Longest assassination trial reaches appeals stage

N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras

Two judges and over five years later, the longest assassination -- that of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi -- trial in the country has reached the appeals stage.

Between then and the final verdict -- by the Supreme Court which is the only appellate authority under the by-now-defunct Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, bypassing the high court -- may be another long story, if the past perseverance of the defence is any indication.

It is only in the rarest of rare occasions that a sessions case -- that, too, of such magnitude and importance -- is handled by two judges. The unwritten rule is that the trial judge -- who takes up the sessions case, which also covers murder under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (with or without a conspiracy angle under Section 120-B) -- passes his orders, before taking up his next assignment.

That was not the case with the Rajiv Gandhi assassination trial with procedural appeals, both before the Madras high court and the Supreme Court, taking their time. And Trial Judge S M Siddick found himself being superseded for elevation to the Madras high court bench.

The Tamil Nadu government, in turn, named V Navaneetham to head the Designated Court I at Poonamallee, handling the case exclusively for the past five years and more. If the defence did not protest, it possibly realised the delays in acquittals, if any.

In comparison, the Mahatma Gandhi assassination case and the Indira Gandhi assassination case were short. Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte had been executed by November 15, 1949, after trial and appeal before the Punjab high court -- the Supreme Court had not come into being then.

Even in the Indira Gandhi assassination case, all the appeals had been exhausted by the defence -- including the one on presidential pardon -- in about five years. Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh were executed on January 6, 1989, for the offence committed on October 31, 1984. The trial court had sentenced both along with Balwant Singh to death, on January 22, 1986, just over a year after the assassination.

Included in the long list of appeals and law-points raised by Satwant Singh's lawyer Ram Jethmalani were those questioning the legality of capital punishment and the prerogative of the executive to aid and advise the President on pardon petitions.

And in the early stages of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination trial itself, the defence impleded itself in the TADA case pending before the Supreme Court. Though the Supreme Court held parts of the TADA Act invalid -- and the law itself was allowed to lapse subsequently -- it was still applicable to pending cases. That included the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case and the Bombay blasts case.

In comparison, it has taken the Rajiv Gandhi case some four months short of six years to cross the trial stage. The assassination took place on May 21, 1991, and the chargesheet was filed exactly a year later.

For the first time in an assassination trial, at least in India, journalists and photographers were called in as witnesses, most of them as 'secret witnesses' without revealing their identities as they stood behind a screen to answer counsel's queries.

That included possibly the only survivor, outside the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam clan, to have spoken to Sivarasan at the assassination site -- to whom he was reportedly introduced as a fellow journalist by Haribabu, the dead photographer, whose pictures of the assassination scenario, spoke from the grave.

Still the trial is incomplete -- the first three accused in the case, LTTE supremo V Prabhakaran, his intelligence chief 'Pottu' Amman and women wings commander Akila -- are yet to be apprehended. Their case has been separated from the just-concluded trial. And it will be launched when, and if, they are apprehended and brought to book in India.

Tell us what you think of this report