NEW DELHI — Three Sikhs on Wednesday were sentenced to death by hanging for their part in the 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The sentences were imposed by Judge Mahesh Chandra shortly after he convicted the three, ending a 254-day trial that began last May in a small, makeshift courtroom in Delhi's Tihar Jail.
Satwant Singh, 22, a constable in Gandhi's bodyguard, was convicted of murdering Gandhi in the garden of her official residence on Oct. 31, 1984. Subinspector Balbir Singh, 45, and Kehar Singh, 50, were found guilty of conspiracy to murder.
A fourth Sikh, Beant Singh, 32, another Gandhi bodyguard, was shot to death by other guards moments after he and Satwant Singh opened fire on the prime minister.
All Sikh males adopt the surname Singh, which means lion.
"Keeping in view the nature of the offense," the judge said "and . . . the fact that Beant Singh and Satwant Singh were detailed for the security of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, . . I am of the opinion that this offense is of the rarest of rare nature in which the extreme penalty of death is called for."
No Execution Date Set
Judge Chandra delivered his verdicts and sentences from behind a bulletproof glass screen.
He did not set a date for the execution, and defense lawyers said they will appeal to higher courts within a week.
The three Sikhs listened impassively as they sat dressed in suits on a rough wooden bench in a bulletproof enclosure. They showed no signs of emotion until the judge left the room.
Then Satwant Singh climbed atop the defendants' bench to tell reporters: "My fate was sealed even before the trial began."
Sucha Singh, general secretary of a committee managing Sikh temples in New Delhi, said: "We feel only Satwant Singh should have been sentenced to death. The community is very much disturbed and depressed by the judgment for the two others. There was not enough proof against them."
The prosecution said the defendants began plotting Gandhi's assassination after she sent troops into the Sikhs' holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in June, 1984, to flush out extremists fighting for a separate Sikh state in Punjab.
Falcon Was a Sign
The prosecution said a chance flight by a falcon to Gandhi's home in September, 1984, triggered the conspiracy. The falcon, a good luck omen for Sikhs, was spotted by Balbir Singh, who showed it to Beant Singh. The two agreed that the bird signified a divine order for them to kill Gandhi. Prosecutors said Kehar Singh urged his nephew Bent Singh to avenge the temple assault.
Three prosecution witnesses, two policemen and one of Indira Gandhi's personal attendants, testified that they saw Satwant Singh and Beant Singh shoot Gandhi on a garden path.
Pran Nath Lekhi, Satwant Singh's attorney, said he would appeal within a week.
Lekhi charged throughout the trial that Indira Gandhi was killed in a family conspiracy involving her son and successor as prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, his Italian-born wife, Sonia, and other "powers behind the throne."
The defense lawyer said the government covered up the alleged conspiracy and framed the defendants as "sacrificial goats" because they are Sikhs.
Judge Chandra dismissed Lekhi's conspiracy allegations, saying: "The courtroom is no place to exhibit such flights of imagination, much less of indulging in political personal vendetta . . . for character assassination."
Sikhs make up about 2% of India's 750 million people but are a slight majority in the northern state of Punjab. Sikh extremists have waged a terror campaign for a separate homeland there that has claimed more than 4,000 lives since 1981.
The Gandhi assassination set off four days of Hindu rioting across northern India in which more than 2,000 people were killed, most of them Sikhs.