New Delhi: Former Delhi University professor GN Saibaba and five others were acquitted in the Maoist left-wing case by the Bombay Supreme Court, allowing their appeal against conviction and life imprisonment.
A division bench of Judges Rohit Deo and Anil Pansare of Nagpur Bank acquitted accused No. 1 Mahesh Tirki, No. 2 Pandu Pora Narote, No. 3 Hem Keshwdatta Mishra, No. 4 Prashant Rahi, No. 5 Vijay Nan Tirki and No. 6. GN Saibaba.
The former university professor and the others were convicted in March 2017 and are being held in Nagpur Central Prison.
The Supreme Court acquitted the six people, saying that due process should not be sacrificed on the altar of “perceived danger to national security”. The bank ordered the convicts to be released from prison without delay unless charged in another case.
The judges also said the sanction order issued to prosecute the accused in the case under the strict provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was “bad in law and invalid”. Since the court’s order was quashed for lack of proper sanction, the court has allowed the prosecution to obtain the appropriate sanction to try them again.
The defense lawyers were Nihalsing Rathod, Pradeep Mandhyan, Barunkumar, HP Lingayat and Subodh Dharmadhikari. Before the state appeared Siddharth Dave, special prosecutor; and HS Chitaley, assistant special prosecutor.
Defendant No. 2 Narote died in August this year after contracting swine flu in prison. His lawyer claimed that medical care was not provided on time, worsening his condition. Saibaba, who is wheelchair-bound and more than 90% physically disabled, has also alleged medical negligence several times during his incarceration.
Speak with The wire Saibaba’s wife Vasantha said by phone: “This victory would not have been possible without the lawyers and all those who have supported Saibaba and me all these years. This has been a long struggle, but I’m glad justice has finally been done. This was the only case against Saibaba. I can’t wait for him to get out of jail.” Vasantha said she had been extremely nervous and sent her brother to court.
Commenting on the verdict, Attorney Rathod said: “This is a historic judgment and will affect many similarly suffering individuals. I wish the court had also expanded on the merits and explained how preposterous the prosecution’s case was. It is a pity that Pandu had to sacrifice his life while patiently waiting for justice.”
Defendant No. 5 Vijay Nan Tirki was released on bail in September 2019. He received a harsh sentence of 10 years while the rest were given life.
What was the case?
In March 2017, a court in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra convicted Saibaba and others, including a journalist and a student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), for alleged Maoist ties and for participating in activities amounting to waging war against the country.
The case was registered at Aheri Police Station in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli District.
The prosecution had alleged that Saibaba was the secretary of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF), an alleged frontal organization of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). RDF is banned in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.
Saibaba was named as the prime suspect in the case. Of the electronic devices seized from his home in 2013, the state had claimed as many as 247 pages had been found “incriminating”. Police had further alleged that a memory card seized from Hem Mishra contained certain documents that “confirmed” Saibaba’s deep involvement in the activities of the banned terrorist organization.
The lower court’s conviction was based on the statements of 22 witnesses. Of them, only one was an independent witness; the rest were all police witnesses.
The court found Saibaba and the others guilty under various provisions of the strict Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
What did Bombay HC say?
The court said that while the war on terrorism must be waged by the state with “unshakable determination”, a democratic society “cannot afford to sacrifice procedural safeguards” on the altar of “perceived danger to national security” .
“The siren song that the end justifies the means and that the procedural safeguards are secondary to the overwhelming need to ensure that the accused is prosecuted and punished must be muzzled by the voice of the rule of law. Any aberration will only be counterproductive, as empirical evidence suggests that deviance from due process fosters an ecosystem in which terrorism sprouts and feeds vested interests whose unique agenda is to spread false stories,” the court added.
The defense attorneys, in their appeal against the court’s conviction, had pointed to the discrepancies in the sanction warrants obtained to try the accused under UAPA. In the written argument presented to the court, the lawyers noted that the penalty should be obtained at the evidence stage, where the collected evidence must be submitted to an independent authority for review within 7 days. The sanction order was issued on February 2, 2014 against only defendants 1 to 5. Defendant 6, namely Saibaba, was excluded from this order.
Saibaba was arrested on May 5, 2015. But just nine months after his arrest, a new sanction request was filed. Defense attorneys argued in their pleadings before the Supreme Court that the new sanctions authority had not referenced the old order when adopting a new one. The court had started the proceedings before the sanction could be obtained, which turned out to be one of the crucial reasons for the acquittal in the High Court.
“In the absence of an appropriate sanction from the outset, the learned sessions court had no jurisdiction to further litigate against the plaintiff,” Saibaba’s lawyers had argued in the HC.
Since the Supreme Court’s order relied heavily on the lack of a sanction order rather than on the merits of the case, the court gave the prosecution the discretion to obtain the appropriate sanction to try them again. “The double jeopardy rule does not apply if the trial is declared invalid due to invalidity or lack of sanction,” the court noted.
Saibaba’s lawyers and friends also face UAPA charges
After the conviction of Saibaba, his lawyer in the lower court, Surendra Gadling; his colleague Hany Babu; and his close friend Rona Wilson were also arrested under the UAPA charges over the next few years. While Gadling fought his case in court, Babu and Wilson campaigned for his release. All three are named as prime suspects in the 2018 Elgar Parishad case.
Babu’s wife and professor Jenny Rowena at Delhi University said the acquittal of Saibaba and others suddenly made her very hopeful. “After all, the Elgar Parishad case was largely dependent on the Saibaba case. Saibaba’s acquittal will help us prove the innocence of all those booked in the Elgar Parishad case,” Rowena said. The wire.
On April 3, 2021, the Ram Lal Anand College of the University of Delhi removed Saibaba from his post as an assistant professor at the university. Saibaba had joined the college in 2003 and was suspended in 2014 when he was arrested by Maharashtra police.
Timeline of events
August 22, 2013: Mahesh Tirki, Pandu Pora Naroti and Hem Keshwdatta Mishra arrested at the Aheri bus stop
August 22, 2013: “Electronic Evidence” seized from Mishra
August 22, 2013: FIR registered
September 1, 2013: Prashant Rahi and Vijay Nan Tirki arrested
September 2, 2013: “Incriminating Naxal Literature” seized from Rahi
September 12, 2013: A “cache of electronic devices” seized from Saibaba’s home in New Delhi
February 2, 2014: Sanction awarded to prosecute all accused under UAPA
February 16, 2014: Charges filed against all six
May 5, 2015: GN Saibaba arrested
November 30, 2015: Additional charges filed against Saibaba
March 7, 2017: All convicted under UAPA and IPC charges
Note: This is a story in development. More details will be added as they become available.