Mumbai: More than eight years after his arrest, the Bombay High Court acquitted Friday former Delhi University professor GN Saibaba in an alleged Maoist links case for want of valid sanction for prosecution under the UAPA. Following the high court order, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) moved the Supreme Court against the acquittal. The Supreme Court however, rejected NIA’s request for immediate stay to the order regarding the acquittal to GN Saibaba.
Setting aside the life imprisonment awarded to Saibaba by the trial court, the high court noted that while the fight against terrorism was important, procedural safeguards cannot be sacrificed ‘at the altar of perceived peril to national security’.
Saibaba, 52, is likely to be released Saturday from Nagpur central jail where he is lodged since his arrest May 2014, his lawyers said.
The high court’s Nagpur bench of Justices Rohit Deo and Anil Pansare in its 101-page judgement noted that the sanction to prosecute the accused under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was ‘bad in law and invalid’.
Saibaba, who is wheelchair-bound due to 90 per cent physical disability, should be released forthwith unless his custody was required in any other case, the court said. Welcoming the ruling, Saibaba’s wife AS Vasantha Kumari said they had faith that he would be cleared from the case as he was innocent.
The high court also allowed the appeals filed by five other convicts, acquitting them of all charges.
In March 2017, a Sessions Court in eastern Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district convicted Saibaba and others including a journalist and a Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student for alleged Maoist links and for indulging in activities amounting to ‘waging war against the country’. The trial court held Saibaba and others guilty under the stringent UAPA and Indian Penal Code (IPC).
The sanction to prosecute under the UAPA was granted in 2014 against the five accused who had been arrested initially. The sanction to prosecute Saibaba was granted in 2015.
The court pointed out that in 2014 when the trial court took cognisance of the charge-sheet against him and others there was no sanction to prosecute Saibaba under the UAPA. The trial court’s proceedings were thus ‘null and void’ in the absence of a valid sanction under the UAPA and hence the judgment of conviction was liable to be set aside, the high court held.
“While the war against terror must be waged by the State with unwavering resolve, and every legitimate weapon in the armoury must be deployed in the fight against terror, a civil democratic society can ill afford sacrificing the procedural safeguards legislatively provided, and which is an integral facet of the due process of law, at the altar of perceived peril to national security,” the high court bench said.
Kumari meanwhile expressed joy at Saibaba’s acquittal. “We had faith that he would be acquitted because he did not do anything wrong. There was no crime and no evidence. I am thankful to the judiciary and all those who supported us,” she said. The couple’s daughter is currently pursuing MPhil from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Asked how they coped with his absence in the last eight years, Kumari said, “Don’t ask! There was a lot of struggle and patience involved in the last eight years. It was difficult for Saibaba also since his health deteriorated and he lost his job.”
While Saibaba was a resident of Delhi at the time of his arrest, co-accused Mahesh Tirki (27) and Pandu Narote (who died while the hearing on his appeal was pending) were locals of Gadchiroli district and were farmers.
Hem Mishra (37) was a student who lived in Almoda district in Uttarakhand, Prashant Sanglikar (59) was a journalist who hailed from Deharadun in Uttarakhand and Vijay Tirki (35) from Chattisgarh was a labourer at the time of arrest. Only Tirki had been granted bail in the case.
Activist and lawyer Prashant Bhushan termed the HC verdict as ‘good news’. Saibaba was kept in the ‘Anda Cell’ (high security cell) of the jail despite being disabled and in poor health, he claimed in a tweet.
The CPI (M) also welcomed the acquittal and demanded immediate release of all ‘political prisoners’.
“CPI (M) welcomes (the) acquittal of GN Saibaba and expresses solidarity with him. Many more continue to be persecuted under false charges. Release all political prisoners immediately,” the party said in a tweet.
As per a study conducted by a rights group, out of 8,371 persons arrested under the UAPA between 2015 and 2020, only 235 have so far been convicted.
Welcoming Saibaba’s release, academician Ashok Swain tweeted, “He was jailed almost as long (Narendra) Modi has been Prime Minister.”
Activist Kavita Krishnan said that Saibaba, a ‘disabled human rights defender’ had to suffer what amounted to torture in prison which damaged his health. “Shame,” she tweeted.
Supreme Court lawyer Indira Jaising expressed her ‘heartfelt tribute to Pandu Narote’,, the co-accused who died in prison
All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi said that Saibaba ‘suffered immensely in prison for years because of UAPA’.
“UAPA is a monster created by the collaboration of BJP and Congress. Its victims are mostly innocent Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis and dissenters. Only three per cent of accused have been convicted under UAPA, but innocent people arrested under it remain in jail for years,” Owaisi said in a series of tweets.