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January 28, 1998

29 Defendants Guilty in Gandhi Case


Filed at 8:06 a.m. EST

By The Associated Press

POONAMALLEE, India (AP) -- After six years and nearly 300 witnesses, a judge today convicted a feared Sri Lankan rebel and 28 other conspirators in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. All but three were sentenced to death.

Gandhi and 17 others were killed at a 1991 political rally near Poonamallee when a Sri Lankan suicide bomber offered him flowers, then set off a pound of plastic explosives packed with 10,000 metal pellets.

``The nation stands vindicated,'' said D.R. Karthikeyan, the federal police officer who led the investigation into Gandhi's killing.

The sentences, relayed to reporters by Karthikeyan, came hours after Judge V. Navaneetham announced his verdicts. Reporters were not allowed in the courtroom.

Though only two defendants were convicted of murder, all were tried under special terrorist laws that made the death penalty possible. Death sentences are rare in India, but those convicted in previous political assassinations were hanged.

The judge passed no sentence for three Sri Lankan rebels leaders tried in absentia. The rebels are at large in neighboring Sri Lankan, where they are fighting for a Tamil homeland.

The charges ranged from abetting a crime to murder. During the inquiry, 12 suspects committed suicide rather than be captured.

The case was India's longest assassination trial. The verdict in the killing of independence leader Mohandas Gandhi came after two years, and the trial for the killer of Rajiv Gandhi's mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, lasted 15 months.

Two defendants in this trial, including the man who built the bomb, were convicted of murder, their lawyers said. Others who helped with planning or provided transportation, housing or food to the killers were convicted of lesser chargers.

Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and his top two aides were convicted in absentia. Other members of the Sri Lankan group also were convicted.

Lawyers for the defendants said they would appeal.

The Tigers, fighting for a homeland for minority Tamils in neighboring Sri Lanka, were supported by previous Indian governments. But as prime minister in 1987, Gandhi sent troops to help the Sri Lankan government try to crush their uprising.

Reaction to the verdict was muted in southern India, populated by ethnic Tamils with close ties to Tamils in Sri Lanka. About 100 members of a local political party linked to the Tigers kept a vigil near the courthouse, but refused to speak with reporters.

Indian Tamils had objected to a federal report late last year that they said suggested all Tamils were responsible for Gandhi's death. India's national government fell in November because the ruling coalition refused to oust a member party accused in the report of supporting the Tigers. Voting for a new parliament is scheduled next month.

Fear of the Tigers, who have carried out several assassinations in their own country as well, prompted the strict security measures for the trial. About 1,000 police officers were posted in the area today. Shops in the neighborhood were closed.

Karthikeyan led a team of 180 officers who examined hundreds of thousands of documents, photographs and hours of videotape. Their first break came when they developed film from a camera found at the scene, and identified Tamil militants in the photographs.

Twelve suspects -- including the man believed to have led the hit squad -- killed themselves by swallowing cyanide to avoid being captured by police who had trapped them in a house after a chase across southern India in 1992.

Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv's widow, was campaigning for her husband's Congress Party in northern India today. Though not running for office herself, she is trying to help revive a party weakened by corruption scandals and lack of charismatic leadership.

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