Bombay High Court acquits Prof GN Saibaba and other co-accused in Maoist-link case


  • March 5, 2024
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The incarceration of Prof Saibaba and the other co-accused and their acquittal by the High Court after a decade shows – the dictum of ‘natural justice’ that not a single innocent should be punished – is vanishing into thin air in the gathering gales of fascism.

 

Groundxero| March 5, 2024

 

The Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court on Tuesday (March 5) set aside the conviction of GN Saibaba and five others in an alleged Moaists-links case under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Wheel-chair bound GN Saibaba and the other co-accused have been under custody since their arrest in 2014 on charges of having links with the banned Maoist organisations and waging war against the Indian State.

 

The subsequent trial in the case by a special court at Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district led to their conviction in March 2017.  GN Saibaba, Mahesh Kariman Tirki, Hem Keshavdatta Mishra, Pandu Pora Narote and Prashant Rahi, were sentenced to life imprisonment, and Vijay Tirki, was sentenced to 10 years in jail by the special court. One of the accused Pandu Narote, aged 33, died in August 2022 after contracting spine flu in prison. He was allegedly denied proper and timely medical care by jail authorities.

 

A division bench of the Bombay High Court was hearing appeals afresh by the accused, following directions from the Supreme Court in 2022. The hearing was concluded in September, last year, but the judgement was kept in reserve. The judgement setting aside the conviction by the trial court and acquitting all the accused, including Prof Saibaba was announced today.

 

The bench of Justices Vinay G Joshi and Valmiki SA Menezes of the Bombay High Court in their judgement delivered today held that the prosecution failed to prove the case against the accused. The bench pointed out that the prosecution failed to establish legal seizure of material and could not prove any incriminating material against the accused, and also noted that the sanction for their prosecution under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was null and void. The bench, therefore, set aside the trial court’s 2017 judgement convicting the accused as “being unsustainable in the hands of law” and ordered their acquittal.  

 

On October 14, 2022, another bench of Justices Rohit B Deo (who resigned last year) and Anil Pansare of the Bombay HC had set aside their conviction by the trial court on procedural grounds, ordering the release of all four men, including GN Saibaba, in the case. The judges held their trial under UAPA “null and void” due to absence of a valid sanction under section 45 (1) of the UAPA. As per UAPA provisions, a court cannot take cognizance of an offence until sanction within a stipulated time is received from the Union or state government.

 

However, the Maharashtra government challenged the order in the Supreme Court, which in a controversial special sitting on the very next day on Saturday, stayed the High Court order. On the same day, the SC bench of Justices M R Shah (now retired) and Bela M Trivedi  suspended the Nagpur bench verdict, saying that the high court had not gone into the merits of the case or “the seriousness and gravity of the offences for which the accused were convicted”.

 

Later, in April 2023, a SC bench of Justices M R Shah and C T Ravikumar set aside the Bombay High Court verdict that discharged Saibaba and others. The SC directed the Bombay HC to hear the case afresh and reevaluate it solely on the basis of merits within four months. The SC even assigned the case to a different bench to maintain propriety and avoid any apprehensions.

 

Justice Joshi-led Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court heard the appeals of the accused afresh and closed them for judgement on September 7, 2023. The judgement upholding the appeals and acquitting all the accused was delivered today.

 

For all the six accused sentenced in 2017 to life imprisonment, the journey to prove themselves innocent has been a long and arduous one. The appeal against their conviction has seen innumerable adjournments; the two Covid lockdown years only made the wait worse. The imprisonment of Prof Saibaba in an Anda cell has been particularly cruel. Despite being 90% handicapped, suffering from multiple ailments and dependent on a wheelchair, the former professor of Delhi University has not been able to step out of the Anda cell of the Nagpur jail since his conviction. His 8×10 feet cell has no window and one wall made of iron bars, exposing him to extreme weather, especially in the scorching summer heat. All his pleas for bail, and parole when his mother was ill and later died were turned down by the government and the courts. He was not allowed to meet his dying mother or even perform the last rites after her death. 

 

Numerous human rights organisations, intellectuals, writers, poets and activists, including Ms Mary Lawlor, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has spoken out against the persistent detention by the Indian Government of former Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba, calling it an inhuman and senseless act bearing all the “hallmarks of a State seeking to silence a critical voice.”

 

After the verdict of the Bombay HC, Advocate Mandhyan, who led a team of lawyers that fought the case on behalf of the accused, said “the entire case was false, forged and fabricated.” “There was not an iota of evidence. The arrest was wrong, the seizures fabricated. We demonstrated that,” added Advocate Mandhyan.

 

The incarceration of Prof Saibaba and the other co-accused and their acquittal after a decade shows, the dictum of ‘natural justice’ that not a single innocent should be punished – is vanishing into thin air in the gathering gales of fascism. If this is the predicament of the peoples’ intellectuals, imagine what would be the plight of common people who organise and oppose the state to defend their rights?  Thousands of Adivasis, Muslims and Dalits are rotting behind the high walls of prison charged under UAPA by the state. Today, anyone who questions the government is targeted under the draconian anti-terrorist UAPA law. Unless the government and the police are held accountable, they will go on hounding activists who raise their voice for the exploited by foisting false cases and keeping them in incarceration for years.

 

The Indian State is afraid of the questions raised by persons like Saibaba and the hundreds and thousands of people coming on the streets questioning the anti-people policies of the governments. Within hours, the Maharashtra government has approached the Supreme Court against the acquittal order of the HC bench. It is still uncertain whether the six accused will ultimately be released, and if Saibaba will finally be able to see the blades of grass he so loves.

 

We end this report by quoting a poem written by Saibaba soon after his conviction in 2017.

 

I REFUSED TO DIE

When I refused to die
my chains were loosened
I came out
Into the vast meadows
Smiling at the leaves of grass
My smile caused intolerance in them
I was shackled again
Again, when I refused to die
tired of my life
my captors released me
I walked out
into the lush green valleys under the rising sun
smiling at the tossing blades of grass
Infuriated by my undying smile
They captured me again
I still stubbornly refuse to die
The sad thing is that
They don’t know how to make me die
Because I love so much
The sounds of growing grass

(November 2017.)

 

 

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