The Hindu (Mumbai)

Free of guilt

Saibaba’s acquittal underscore­s that there can be no guilt by associatio­n


The exoneratio­n of former Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba and five others of the charge of having Maoist links exposes the practice of invoking stringent laws based on nothing more than a person’s likely associatio­n with or sympathy for extremist groups. Their acquittal by the Bombay High Court is notable for giving full meaning to the procedural safeguards that countervai­l the stringency of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. It also shines a light on the baildenyin­g features of the law that allows the state to imprison suspects for long years even though the evidence backing their arrest is doubtful or flimsy. In this particular case, five of the accused were arrested in 2013 and continued to be incarcerat­ed since then, and one of them died during the pendency of the appeal. Mr. Saibaba was arrested in 2014. The trial court had convicted the six of them and sentenced five of them to life and awarded a 10year term to the other. The case will also be remembered for a dubious reason: the Supreme Court’s hasty interventi­on to stay their discharge by the High Court in 2022. They were discharged on the ground that the sanction given to prosecute them under UAPA was not valid, but an apex court Bench sat the very next morning, a Saturday, to stay the order, and later directed the High Court to pass a fresh judgment on merits. Many had questioned the haste with which the benefit of discharge was reversed.

The latest judgment is a complete repudiatio­n of the prosecutio­n case, holding that the seizure effected from the accused was not proved, the material relied upon by the state was inadequate and that there was nothing to link the accused with any terrorist act, conspiracy or membership of any Maoist organisati­on. It also found that the sanction given under UAPA to five of the accused was invalid because the report of the authority meant to review material against them independen­tly was just a green signal for their prosecutio­n, containing no discussion on the nature of the evidence. Further, the trial court had taken cognisance of the charge sheet against Mr. Saibaba even before the sanction, which came later, had been received. In its discussion on the use of UAPA against the accused, the Court has again emphasised that the more stringent a law is, the greater will be the need to adhere to procedural safeguards — the independen­t review was an additional safeguard introduced in UAPA in 2008. It reiterates the principle that mere possession of literature or publicity material, without any direct evidence linking suspects with a terrorist act, cannot be a ground to convict them under UAPA.

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