Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh denounced plans to free former premier Rajiv Gandhi's killers as an attack on the nation's soul Thursday as his government launched a legal battle to stop their release.
Seven Tamil extremists are due to walk free from prison by this weekend after the chief minister of Tamil Nadu state on Wednesday ordered their release, provided there was no objection from Singh's government.
The order from Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa came a day after the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence handed down to three of the seven people convicted over their role in the 1991 assassination in her state.
But in his first intervention in the case, Singh said the release of the seven "would be contrary to all principles of justice".
"The assassination of Shri Rajiv Gandhi was an attack on the soul of India," Singh said in a statement.
"No government or party should be soft in our fight against terrorism," he added.
Singh confirmed in his statement that the government had lodged a petition before the Supreme Court to challenge the release which is expected to be heard by judges later Thursday.
Rajiv Gandhi, whose widow Sonia is now president of Singh's Congress party, was targeted by Tamil Tiger separatists while he was campaigning in the southern state in May 1991 ahead of an election.
His killing was seen as retaliation for a 1987 Indian government pact with the Sri Lankan government to disarm the Tamil guerrillas.
Rajiv became India's youngest-ever leader after his mother, prime minister Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in October 1984. He ruled until losing an election five years later.
His son Rahul, who is the Congress frontman for upcoming general elections, voiced his sadness on Wednesday's over Jayalalithaa's decision.
"If some person kills the PM and is released then how will a common man... get justice?" said Rahul who was only 20 at the time of the suicide bomb attack which killed 16 other people.
"In this country even the PM does not get justice. This is my heart's voice," Gandhi was quoted as saying by local media.
Several newspapers said Thursday that Jayalalithaa's surprise decision was motivated by a desire to woo Tamil voters for her regional party at the upcoming general election, with the front-page headline of The Times of India declaring: "Jaya plays politics".
Neelam Deo, director of the Delhi-based Gateway House thinktank, said Jayalalithaa had been a staunch critic of the Tamil Tigers but was nevertheless sensitive to the sympathy felt by voters in her state towards the minority Tamil population in neighbouring Sri Lanka.
"There is no popular backing for the LTTE (Tigers) in Tamil Nadu. That evaporated after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. What remains is support for the rights and dignity of Sri Lankan Tamils," said Deo.
Amid the growing controversy over the release order, the daughter of two of those who are due to go free appealed for forgiveness from the Gandhi family, saying she understood the pain felt by Rahul.
"I'm really sorry for Rahul Gandhi. My parents have regretted enough, they deserve forgiveness. I can understand losing someone you love," 22-year-old Harithra Sriharan told India's NDTV network.
"I have suffered the same punishment. I deserve to be with my parents. Though I have parents who are alive, I have never had them.
"Even if they had done the crime they've suffered enough," Sriharan, who has lived in Britain for the last decade, said in a phone interview.
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