A three-judge panel today upheld the death sentences against three Sikhs convicted in the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi and ordered that they be hanged within 90 days unless the ruling is appealed.
The ruling came a day after an estimated 16,000 Hindus battled Sikhs in New Delhi during a general strike called to protest Sikh terrorist attacks against Hindus in Punjab state.
The judges delivered the two-line verdict behind bullet-proof glass in a heavily guarded courtroom. Defendants Satwant Singh, Balbir Singh and Kehar Singh were not present, and no reason was given for their absence. They are not related although they share the name Singh, which means "lion" in Punjabi and is part of every male Sikh's name.
More Than 2,000 Killed
Gandhi, who was prime minister, was shot to death by guards Oct. 31, 1984, triggering widespread anti-Sikh riots in the capital city of 6.5 million. More than 2,000 people, mostly Sikhs, were killed in the violence.
Her slaying was characterized as revenge for an army raid she ordered to rout Sikh extremists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhism's holiest shrine. At least 1,200 people were killed in the raid.
In its 650-page written judgment, the Delhi High Court panel said, "No excuse or circumstance can . . . mitigate such a treacherous and cowardly act where a defenseless woman was cruelly slaughtered by the 'guardians' of her safety."
The judgment condemned "the most inhuman mode of killing" and said, "Two persons crowding in before an elderly woman and mercilessly pumping into her not one or two but as many as 30 bullets is the ghastly scene to be conjured in the mind's eye."
Convicted in January
The defendants appealed the lower court verdicts and sentences after their convictions Jan. 22 in a nine-month trial.
Defense lawyer Pran Nath Lekhi said he did not know whether the three will appeal to the Supreme Court. "I will first talk to them in the jail and then decide," he said.
If the Supreme Court rejected an appeal, the defendants could appeal to Indian President Zail Singh for mercy.
Meanwhile today, the Punjab government declared that Sikh terrorism has made army intervention necessary in parts of the state, thereby authorizing the army to open fire and make searches and arrests without warrants. The federal government, however, did not immediately move to deploy the army in Punjab, a strategic farming state bordering rival Pakistan.