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Activists arrest: Liberty cannot be subjected to conjectures, says SC

Activists arrest: Liberty cannot be subjected to conjectures, says SC

Prosecution continues to assert arrested activists colluding with Maoists, defence questions evidence on record and presses with SIT probe demand

The Supreme Court, on Wednesday (September 19), resumed hearing the petition filed by Romila Thapar and four other eminent citizens challenging the controversial arrests of five civil liberties activists by the Maharashtra police on August 28.

The activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Varavara Rao and Gautam Navlakha – continue to be under house arrest as per interim orders of the apex court that were issued on August 29.

On Wednesday, as the bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud resumed hearing the petition, senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for the petitioners, began his submissions by questioning the veracity of the evidence cited by the prosecution to justify the arrest of the five activists. The documents in question were letters reportedly recovered by the Maharashtra police during its probe into the January 1 Bhima Koregaon communal clashes which allegedly point towards a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, allegations of the involvement of the five arrested activists in the said plot and their alleged links with banned organization CPI (Maoists).

“Eight months after the Elgar Parishad (the January 1 event in Bhima Koregaon, Pune, that preceded the communal clashes between members of the scheduled caste community and Upper class Marathas), the present detenues were arrested… it is undisputed that none of these five activists were associated with the organisation of the event… they were not even present there…as for the allegation regarding the scheme to attack the office of the Prime Minister on the line of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, no FIR has been registered (sic). The state itself is not taking the claim seriously,” Singhvi argued.

Singhvi also rubbished the prosecution’s charge that those arrested had a past criminal record. He said that while Sudha Bhardwaj and Gautam Navlakha have no criminal cases registered against them, of the 25 and 11 cases filed against, Varavara Rao and Arun Ferreira respectively, the duo had been acquitted in all. He added that though 19 cases were registered against Vernon Gonsalves, he had been acquitted in 17 while his discharge was pending in one case and an appeal was pending in another.

The counsel for the petitioners then went on to demolish the purported evidence that averred to a plot to assassinate the prime minister and the involvement of the arrested activists in the scheme. Stating that 13 letters had been leaked into the public domain, seven of which point towards the alleged assassination plot, Singhvi said that these letters are purported to have been exchanged between one Comrade Prakash and the five accused. Asserting that these letters are “fabricated”, have not been forensically examined and do not find a mention in any of the FIRs or remand applications linked with the arrests of the five activists, Singhvi placed reliance on the conviction order of Delhi University professor GN Saibaba by a sessions court which records a finding that states that Comrade Prakash is actually Saibaba himself. Singhvi then went on to say that while Saibaba has been in jail since March 2017, the contentious letters in question have all been written in subsequent months and were in fact recovered from the computer of a third party.

Singhvi then reiterated the plea of his clients – Romila Thapar, Maja Daruwala, Devaki Jain, Prabhat Pattnaik and Satish Deshpande – for a court-ordered special investigation team to look into the case filed against the five activists. Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta objected to the request stating once again that the petitioners are “strangers” and “have no locus” in the criminal proceedings against those arrested. Singhvi, however, rebutted Mehta’s contention citing several instances where the Supreme Court had used its powers under Article 32 to order a SIT probe in important cases.

Senior advocate Anand Grover, appearing for five activists – Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut and Sudhir Dhawale – who had been arrested in June this year on similar charges of organizing the Elgar Parishad, inciting communal clashes and being Maoists, began his submissions after Singhvi. Stating that he agreed with the arguments advanced by Singhvi, Grover added that the FIR filed against the activists was illegal as a FIR had originally been registered in the Bhima Koregaon case on January 4 and a second FIR on the same issue could be filed as per established directions of the Supreme Court.

Grover pointed at several procedural lapses and misgivings on part of the Maharashtra police in the raids it conducted against the arrested activists and said that only an independent investigation in case, ordered by the Supreme Court, could establish the truth.

Senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan also questioned the arrests and asked the bench “since when has providing legal aid to any group become the basis of registering an FIR against the person (a reference to the cases against Bhardwaj and others)”.

ASG Tushar Mehta, who is representing the Maharashtra government in the case, sought to rebut the arguments made by the counsels for the petitioners and the arrested activists by stating that there was “cogent material” available against the accused. He said that the arrests were conducted “subsequent to careful investigation over six months” and that the entire procedure was executed with “diligence and under the purview of judicial scope”. He also submitted to the bench the case diary and a sealed envelope which reportedly contained the material found by the Maharashtra police during the search and seizure operations against the activists.

When Mehta contended that the activists had regular communication with Maoists and were found to be in possession of Maoist literature, Justice Chandrachud questioned him saying: “many universities send their students for research in Naxal areas and on naxalites, others go there for research purposes too… does that make all of them part of banned naxal organizations?”

Chief Justice Dipak Misra too told ASG Mehta to submit the “best document” (of evidence) that he has against the accused persons.

While Mehta continued to claim that the Maharashtra police had not erred in the arrests of the activists, Justice Chandrachud remarked: “liberty cannot be subjected to conjectures… there has to be a distinction between the opposition and over throwing of a government by Constitutionally impermissible methods.”

The arguments in the case are expected to continue on Thursday and the interim orders of house arrest of the five activists will continue in force until further orders of the court.

— India Legal Bureau