After being jailed for over five years under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), the Bombay high court on Friday acquitted former Delhi University (DU) professor GN Saibaba for alleged Maoist links and attempting to overthrow the government of India.
Saibaba along with co-accused Mahesh Tikri, Hem Mishra, Prashant Rahi, and Vijay Tikri were acquitted. The sixth accused in the case, Pandu Narote died as a result of jail authorities negligence.
The acquittal was granted by Justice Rohit Baban Deo and Justice AL Pansare. Dr Gokarakonda Naga Saibaba was languishing in Nagpur’s Central prison since 2017 despite repeated appeals to the court to release him.
“While the war against terror must be waged by the State with unwavering resolve, and every legitimate weapon in the armory 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 judgment said.
The bench noted that the legislative imperative is that sanction for prosecution shall be given only after considering the report of the independent authority (appointed under the Act), which shall make an independent review of the evidence gathered during the investigation and make a recommendation.
It added that the report of the appointed authority in the present case renders no aid or assistance to the sanctioning authority, being devoid of reasons or brief summary of the analysis of the review of evidence gathered.
“We unhesitatingly hold that the sanctioning authority paid lip service to the legislative mandate and the report of the appointed authority was sought, and unfortunately given as a ritualistic formality. The transgression of the legislative imperative renders the sanction order bad in law and hence invalid,” the court said in its judgment.
It said that any departure from the due process of law fosters an ecosystem in which terrorism burgeons and provides fodder to vested interests, whose singular agenda is to propagate false narratives.
Ideally, the sanction order must be self-explanatory and relevant facts and circumstances on the basis of which sanction is accorded must ordinarily appear on the face of the sanction order, it added.
“We are inclined to hold that every safeguard, however miniscule, legislatively provided to the accused, must be zealously protected,” the court said.
The Siren Song that the end justifies the means, and that the procedural safeguards are subservient to the overwhelming need to ensure that the accused is prosecuted and punished, must be muzzled by the voice of Rule of Law, it added.
Sanction is a solemn and sacrosanct act that empowers the Court to take cognizance of offence. Sanction serves the salutary object of providing safeguard to the accused from unwarranted prosecution and the agony and trauma of trial and in the context of the stringent provisions of the UAPA, is an integral facet of due process of law, it said.
Under UAPA, an independent authority is appointed to make an independent review of the evidence in the case and then submit a report recommending if the provisions of the Act can be invoked against the accused.
“The authority claims to have perused the copies of the FIR, panchnama, copies of witness statements and other related documents and then concludes that there is prima facie evidence against the accused under UAPA,” the HC said.
This purported report contains the conclusion sans reasoning, the judgment said, adding that the report was just a communication in the form of recommendation.
“In our view, a laconic communication conveying only the recommendation sans summary of analysis of the review of the evidentiary material is not a report which the legislature intended the appointed authority shall submit to the sanctioning authority, and stands on the same footing as absence of report, the bench added.
The bench directed for the convicts to be released forthwith from jail unless they are accused in any other case.
Background of the case
Saibaba was in jail for his alleged links with banned extreme left organisations. While he was granted bail after his initial arrest in 2014, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2017 for connections with Communist Party of India (Maoist) and its frontal organisation, the banned Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF).
Sanction to prosecute the accused under the UAPA was granted by a Maharashtra sessions court in 2014 against the five accused, who were arrested first, and against Saibaba in 2015.
The bench noted that in 2014 when the trial court took cognisance of the charge-sheet filed by the prosecution, there was no sanction to prosecute Saibaba under the UAPA.
Despite his repeated denial that he had nothing to do with the banned organisation, he was charged under Sections 13, 18, 20, 38 and 39 of the UAPA and Section 120 B of the Indian Penal Code.
Dr GN Saibaba is an Indian academic and human rights activist ailing from 90% paralysis, a result of polio. Saibaba is well known for speaking out against the human rights violations carried out during Operation Green Hunt; a military offensive launched by the then Congress government in 2009 with the sole aim of crushing Maoist rebels across the tribal belt of India.
(with PTI inputs)