Tale of two press releases from Raj Bhavan on T.N. convicts’ premature release

Published : November 20, 2018 19:28 IST

The TNAU bus that was set on fire on February 2, 2000. PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The remission of the life sentences of three convicts, all AIADMK men, in the Dharmapuri bus burning case in Tamil Nadu has created a controversy. The three men, who walked out of Vellore Central Prison in the early hours of November 19, had torched a bus belonging to Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Coimbatore, on February 2, 2000, at Ilakkiyampatti in Dharmapuri, in which three college girls were burnt alive.

The incident happened when AIADMK cadre indulged in violence across the State after a Special Court in Chennai sentenced their leader and former Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, to one year’s imprisonment in the Kodaikanal Pleasant Stay Hotel case. At Ilakkiyampatti, a group of party cadre blocked the road when students in two college buses, who were on a study tour, arrived there.

The prosecution argued that the three men, Nedu alias Nedunchezhian, Madhu alias Ravindran, and Muniappan, all AIADMK cadre in Dharmapuri urban and district units, set one of the buses, in which there were girl students, on fire. The three girls, Kokkilavani, Gayathri and Hemalatha, were burnt alive while the others escaped with injuries. The Salem Special Court awarded the death penalty to the three accused, and both the High Court and the Supreme Court upheld the verdict. On subsequent appeal, the Supreme Court commuted it to life.

On February 1 this year, the AIADMK government issued an order for the premature release of around 1,800 life convicts who had completed “five years” in prison, on the occasion of the birth centenary of former Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran. The convicts’ list included the names of the three AIADMK men. The files in this connection were sent to Governor Banwarilal Purohit, who reviewed them on a case by case basis.

Reacting to the criticism against the release of the three men in the bus burning case, the Raj Bhavan issued a press release on November 20 clarifying its position. While detailing the sequences of events, it claimed that the Governor “was not satisfied even after the file was submitted to him on 12-11-2018 for the third time for his approval”. This clearly suggested that the Governor’s office was totally unhappy with the State government on the issue of premature release of the three convicts.

But to everyone’s surprise the Raj Bhavan issued a second press release, almost similar to the first one except for the fact that the portion about the State’s submission of the file for the third time seeking remission for the three accused was missing. Otherwise both press releases, issued in quick succession, were similar.

The press releases said the Governor had objected to the completion of just five years in the total imprisonment period in the Government Order (G.O.) and insisted on the completion of at least 10 years’ imprisonment. The State government, accordingly, issued revised orders as per G.O. 302 of the Home Department dated May 3, 2018. The files, including the ones relating to the three AIADMK men, the releases further claimed, were examined by a committee headed by the ADGP (Prisons) and were approved by yet another committee “consisting of the Chief Secretary, Home Secretary and Law Secretary and then approved by the Law Minister and Chief Minister” before they were sent to the Raj Bhavan.

The Governor claimed that a total of 1,627 life convicts had been ordered to be released following this procedure, with the orders of the Governor being issued under Article 161 of the Constitution. “The cases of these three life convicts under reference were submitted along with the bunch of files containing the cases of other life convicts,” the Raj Bhavan releases added. While deciding the cases on merit, the Governor returned the file of the three to the State government for reconsideration.

The State government, however, stuck to its stand. The press releases stated that the Advocate General, the Chief Secretary and the Home Secretary met the Governor at the Raj Bhavan on October 31 and explained the details of the case.

The Governor then sought the Advocate General’s legal opinion. The A.G. quoted the Supreme Court’s observations that the crime had “no premeditation or planning”. The A.G. stated that “the cases of the three live convicts fell within the guidelines laid down by the government for release of the prisoners”.

Later, the Governor cleared the recommendation to release the three convicts prematurely under Article 161 of the Constitution.

After receiving instructions from Inspector-General of Prisons R. Kanagaraj, the Vellore prison authorities released them in the early hours of November 19. Their release was kept under wraps. Their close relatives, who alone were informed, arrived and took them to their villages.

Pleasant Stay and its aftermath

In the Pleasant Stay Hotel case, a Special Court had sentenced Jayalalithaa to one year’s imprisonment on February 2, 2000. Violence broke out across the State, and the three girls died in the bus burning incident. The then State government ordered a Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) inquiry. Twenty-eight persons, including the three who were convicted, were named as accused.

On a petition from the father of one of the victims, Kokkilavani, the Madras High Court transferred the case from the Krishnagiri court, where almost all witnesses turned hostile, to the Salem First Additional District Sessions court. A Special Public Prosecutor was appointed and day–to-day hearings were ordered in the trial. There was an inordinate delay when the State government informed the court that all important files and documents relating to the case were found to be missing. The court gave adequate time.

On February 16, 2007, Salem Sessions Judge D. Krishna Raja awarded the capital punishment to the three and discharged the others. The Madras High Court upheld the lower court verdict on December 6, 2007. The Supreme Court confirmed it on August 30, 2010. On March 11, 2016, on appeal, the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment.

In the light of this remission of sentence of the three convicts, the demand to release the seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, under Article 161 of the Constitution, has gained momentum.  

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