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26 Convicted in Rajiv Gandhi Death

January 28, 1998 GMT

POONAMALLEE, India (AP) _ After six years and nearly 300 witnesses, a judge convicted 26 conspirators today in the 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The court ordered all 26 hanged.

Gandhi and 16 others were killed at a political rally near Poonamallee in southern India 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.

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

Although 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.

Three leaders of Sri Lanka’s Tamil rebels were accused of ordering the killing. The rebels, charged but never captured for trial, are believed at large in the jungles of Sri Lanka.

The defendants were silent during today’s sentencing and betrayed no reaction, said Jacob Daniel, one of the prosecutors.

Arun Sundaram, a photographer whose father was among those sentenced to death, was working in a crowd of reporters outside the courthouse when the sentences were announced. He went pale and stopped taking photographs.

His father, Suba Sundaram, had supplied a camera to a photographer who police said worked with the killers, taking photographs to record the attack. Suba Sundaram was caught when he tried to retrieve the camera; he was convicted of obstructing justice.

The case _ which finally went to trial more than four years ago _ 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. The others, who helped with planning or provided transportation, housing or food to the killers were convicted of lesser chargers.

Lawyers for the defendants said they would appeal.

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The Tamil 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.

Nearly 2,000 people gathered in the market place listening to radio reports of the sentencing. There were no scenes of jubilation, but Raj Kumar, a tailor, said: ``These people deserve to be killed.″

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 prompted strict security measures for the trial. About 1,000 police officers were posted in the area today. Nearby shops 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 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.