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29 Defendants Guilty in Gandhi Case

January 28, 1998

POONAMALLEE, India (AP) _ All 29 defendants were found guilty Wednesday in the 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the investigator who solved the case said.

``The nation stands vindicated,″ federal police officer D.R. Karthikeyan told reporters gathered at a roadblock half a mile from the courthouse where the verdict was announced. Only those involved in the trial had been allowed inside because of tight security.

Gandhi and 17 others were killed at a political rally near Poonamallee, where the trial was held over the last six years. A Sri Lankan suicide bomber offered him flowers, then set off a pound of plastic explosives packed with 10,000 metal pellets.

Karthikeyan said the 41 people implicated in his investigation were found guilty by Judge V. Navaneetham. Only 29 were actually standing trial _ three in absentia _ because 12 had committed suicide rather than be captured.

Charges range from abetting a crime to murder, and possible sentences from five years in prison to death, though the death penalty is rarely carried out in India. Sentencing was scheduled later Wednesday.

Karthikeyan said details of the judgment would be released later Wednesday.

Those convicted included low-ranking members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a Sri Lankan force that is one of the deadliest rebel groups in the region. Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his two top aides were convicted in absentia.

The Tigers, who are fighting for a homeland for minority Tamils in neighboring Sri Lanka, enjoyed support from previous Indian governments. But as prime minister in 1987, Gandhi sent his troops to help the Sri Lankan government try to crush their uprising.

Fear of the Tigers, who have pulled off several daring assassinations in their own country as well, prompted the extraordinary security measures surrounding the trial.

Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv’s widow, was campaigning for her husband’s Congress Party in northern India on Wednesday.

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