HC acquits ex-DU prof Saibaba in Maoist links case, calls his sanction under UAPA 'bad in law'

The court in its judgment noted that the trial court's 2017 proceedings were "null and void" in the absence of valid sanction under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Delhi University Professor G N Saibaba. (File | PTI)
Delhi University Professor G N Saibaba. (File | PTI)

NAGPUR: More than eight years after his arrest, the Bombay High Court on Friday acquitted former Delhi University professor G N Saibaba in an alleged Maoist links case for want of valid sanction for prosecution under the UAPA.

Following the HC order, the prosecution moved the Supreme Court against the acquittal.

The SC, however, rejected its request for immediate stay to the order.

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 can not be sacrificed "at the altar of perceived peril to national security."

Saibaba, 52, is likely to be released from Nagpur central jail where he is lodged since his arrest in May 2014 on Saturday, 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.

The HC also allowed the appeals filed by five other convicts, acquitting them of all charges.

Apart from Saibaba, the court acquitted Mahesh Kariman Tirki (27), Pandu Pora Narote (both farmers), 37-year-old Hem Keshavdatta Mishra (student of Jawaharlal Nehru university), and 59-year-old Prashant Sanglikar (journalist who hailed from Deharadun in Uttarakhand) who were sentenced to life imprisonment, and 35-year-old Vijay Tirki (labourer) from Chattisgarh who was sentenced to ten years in jail.

Only Vijay Tirki had been granted bail in the case. Narote died during pendency of the appeal hearing.

Background of the case

In March 2017, a sessions court in eastern Maharashtra's Gadchiroli district convicted Saibaba and others including a journalist and a 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 HC 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.

Terrorism poses an ominous threat to national security and vile and abhorrent acts of terror do evoke collective societal anger and anguish, the judges said.

"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 HC said.

Lot of struggle for eight years: Saibaba's wife

Welcoming the ruling, his wife A S Vasantha Kumari said they had faith that he would be cleared from the case as he was innocent.

Speaking to PTI, Kumari said, "“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."

”The couple's daughter is currently pursuing MPhil from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Asked how they coped with his absence in the last eight 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 Sai also since his health deteriorated and he lost his job."

Politicians and activists react to the acquittal

- 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.

- 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 3 per cent of accused have been convicted under UAPA, but innocent people arrested under it remain in jail for years," he said in a series of tweets.

- Disability rights activists also lauded the ruling. The National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) said that in spite of repeated appeals, Saibaba was denied bail even on medical grounds.

Arrests under UAPA: Facts

  1. As per a study conducted by a rights group, out of 8,371 persons arrested under the UAPA between 2015 and 2020, only 235 were convicted.
  2. The report, prepared by the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), examined data from the National Crime Records Bureau and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) website.
  3. As per the report, many of the accused in UAPA cases fail to get bail and are eventually acquitted.

G N Saibaba case: A timeline

  • August 22, 2013: Accused persons - Mahesh Tirki, Pandy Narote and Hem Mishra - apprehended after being under surveillance in Naxal-affected areas of Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra.
  • First information report (FIR) registered by police.
  • September 2, 2013: Two more accused - Vijay Tirki and Prashant Sanglikar - arrested by police.
  • September 4, 2013: Warrant sought by police from Magistrate court to conduct a search at the house of G N Saibaba, pursuant to revelations made by accused Mishra and Sanglikar during interrogation.
  • September 7, 2013: Search warrant issued by Magistrate court.
  • September 9, 2013: Police conduct a search at Saibaba's residence in Delhi.
  • February, 15, 2014: Sanction to prosecute the five arrested accused under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) granted by the sanctioning authority.
  • February 16, 2014: Final report/charge-sheet submitted by police before Magistrate court.
  • February 26, 2014: Magistrate court commits the case to sessions court, as offences are sessions triable.
  • February 26, 2014: Police obtain an arrest warrant to arrest Saibaba, but fail to arrest "due to sympathisers".
  • May 9, 2014: Saibaba arrested and produced before court that remanded him to judicial custody.
  • February 21, 2015: Sessions court frames charges against all six accused.
  • All accused pleaded not guilty.
  • April 6, 2015: Sanction to prosecute Saibaba under UAPA granted by sanctioning authority.
  • October 31, 2015: Supplementary charge-sheet filed by police.
  • December 14, 2015: Sessions court orders joint trial in both cases (Saibaba and five accused).
  • Trial begins.
  • March 3, 2017: Sessions court at Gadchiroli in Maharashtra convicts Saibaba and five others under UAPA and IPC.
  • Saibaba and four others sentenced to life imprisonment; one imprisoned to ten years in jail.
  • March 29, 2017: Saibaba and others file appeal against conviction and the sentence in Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court.
  • October 14, 2022: Nagpur bench of the Bombay HC acquits Saibaba and five other convicts in the case.

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