By Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves
Deliberate delays and denial of bail has amounted to sentencing without trial.
Activists of the Kabir Kala Manch, perhaps one of the best known progressive cultural troupes of Maharashtra, heaved a sigh of relief on January 3 when three of their members finally walked out of jail after three-and-a-half years. A Supreme Court bench granted bail to Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaychor and Sachin Mali.
The apex court’s bail order pointed out that though the state had told the Supreme Court in July 2016 that the trial would be completed within six months, it had, till January 2017, only partially completed the examination (leave aside cross examination) of just one of the 147 witnesses it proposed to examine. Such a rate of progress in trial would have meant a lifetime of waiting for its completion. The bench ordered their release.
Method in the madness of trial delays
While it has become customary to blame the backlog of cases in courts for these seemingly crazy delays in trial, there is at the same time a method in the madness that is quite clearly at work, particularly when in comes to political dissenters.
The delays are often the fruit of a deliberate dalliance between police and prosecution to postpone service of summons, hold back witnesses, neglect bringing the muddemaal or physical evidence to court and other such means to ensure that the trial process is effectively paralysed.
This strategy is deployed because the prosecution is aware that most cases against political detainees are weak and often falsely fabricated by the investigating authority and likely to end in acquittal. These “political” cases are normally instituted under harsher laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Public Security Acts of various states. Such laws allow arrests on vaguely defined charges with insubstantial evidence. They also prescribe bail norms which render it difficult for courts to grant bail.
Inordinate delays then become the prosecution’s means for imposing a “sentence” of long years, which entails rotting in jail as an undertrial without bothering to go through the hassle of obtaining a conviction. Thus, though the accused are finally found to be innocent, the judgment offers small comfort for someone who has already spent almost the maximum possible sentence as undertrial.
|Inordinate delays then become the prosecution’s means for imposing a ‘sentence’ of long years rotting in jail as an undertrial without bothering to go through the hassle of obtaining a conviction.
Protection for the perpetrators
Such tactics, while being criminal, neither hold consequences for the investigator or the prosecutor; nor are there any redressal for the victim. A classical case in this regard was related to the Akshardham Temple terror attack of 2002. Six accused in the matter remained in custody for 12 years before being finally acquitted in 2014 by the Supreme Court. The judgment, quoted then in DailyO, explained how the case had been fabricated and the accused framed through concocted statements.
The accused then filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court asking for redressal and compensation for the years lost. Despite the unequivocal observations of the 2014 SC judgment indicating that the accused had been falsely implicated, the same court refused to either punish the perpetrators or compensate the victims. If, in a case which the SC itself has held to be fabricated, there is not scope for recompense, there is obviously nothing much the judicial system can offer by way of righting such wrongs committed by the police-prosecutor combine.
Laxity of the courts
In fact it often seems that the bench too is, unwittingly or otherwise, part of a system that ensures that political dissenters are “punished” without trial. In the case of the KKM members too, though the SC granted bail, almost half of their period spent in custody was during the pendency of their application before the same court.
In another similar case of a political prisoner from Maharashtra, Sudhir Dhawale, editor of the magazine Vidrohi, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court rejected bail, but ordered a timebound trial within a period of six months — only to extend this period three times over, while each time rejecting Sudhir’s bail. He was finally declared not guilty — but only after serving a “sentence” of 40 months as an undertrial.
Reluctance to grant bail
The irony is that, even where the duplicity of the investigating agency is prima facie quite apparent, the courts have been reluctant to exercise their power to grant bail. A recent case is that of the team of lawyers and human rights activists from Telengana who, in December 2016, were on a fact-finding mission to Chhattisgarh to probe accusations of police atrocities in Bastar. Though they were arrested in Telangana they were taken across the border to Chhattisgarh so that they could be charged under the severe Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. The basis shown for arrest was the purported seizure of demonetised notes of one lakh, which they were allegedly taking to “help” naxalites in Bastar.
Despite the illogicality of the argument of lawyers carrying demonetised notes from Telangana to naxalites in Bastar, despite the notes being obviously planted and despite there being no law or rule in force prohibiting the possession of one lakh of demonetised notes, the bail applications of the team members were denied first by the magistrate’s court of Sukma and then by the sessions court of Dantewada. The Dantewada court felt that it was premature to grant bail.
The option of approaching the Chhattisgarh High Court in Bilaspur is not only cumbersome but also, considering the delaying tactics of the prosecution, likely to be long drawn out. The Telangana lawyers, research scholars and journalists who are part of this team will now have to prepare themselves to eke out a few months, if not more, in Bastar’s jails — a “sentence” being imposed without any realistic case at all.
Death sentence by encounter
But perhaps they should consider themselves lucky. In their very own state of Telangana, the police have taken the lead in taking this practice of delivering prison sentences to their logical conclusion. On April 7th 2015, five Muslim prisoners, who were on the verge of completion of their trial where they expected acquittal, were killed in cold blood while being taken to court. The Telangana police probably decided that they deserved not acquittal but the death sentence. They executed accordingly.
A similar dubious “encounter” killing of eight undertrial accused of the Students Islamic Movement of India whose trial was reportedly approaching acquittal was executed by the Bhopal police on October 31 2016.
Despite widespread protest by human rights organisations, the political establishment has indicated that those who have carried out these killings enjoy its support. Pehaps an indicator of the forms of justice delivery in the days to come.