Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Supreme Court Verdict in Akshardham Terror Case- Some Thoughts

                When I read the shocking headline “They asked me to choose: Godhra, Pandya or Akshardham” attributed to Mr. Muhammad Saleem, one of the six people to be acquitted by the Supreme Court in the Akshardham terror attack case, in The Indian Express, it made me curious to study the judgment, in its entirety. The case involved the appeal against concurrent judgments of the POTA Court and Gujarat High Court, awarding, inter alia, death penalty to three persons and life imprisonment / rigorous imprisonment to the remaining three. All six accused persons were acquitted, and that included one accused who did not appeal as he has already completed the sentence while all others have spent more than ten years in jail.

                This 258 page judgment issued on 16th May 2014 did not get much attention from the national media. This lack of Media attention was not surprising, given the fact that the general election results were announced on the same day and the Media was euphoric about the huge mandate received by Sri Narendra Modi.  The date of the judgment, however, was significant as the underlying case was directly related to the same Narendra Modi, in more ways than one.  Modi was the Home Minister and Chief Minister of Gujarat State when the terror attack that killed 33 persons and injured another 86 persons, took place. Modi government received accolades for solving the terror cases, including this one, with determination. No doubt, such ‘decisive and uncompromising actions against terrorism’ was among the many factors attributed to Modi’s subsequent rise within the Party, leading to the massive mandate for his elevation to the post of Prime Minister of this country.  It is a mere coincidence that the judgment came to be pronounced on the same day!

                As I stated, Modi was the Home Minister of the state when the terror attack took place on Akshardham temple, on 24. 09.2002. Both the attackers were eliminated by soldiers of the NSG, by early morning on 25.09.2002. There were conflicting versions from the prosecution itself (as noted by SC) as to the identity of the attackers. The Gujarat police began investigations, immediately, to unearth any wider conspiracy behind the attack. Let me quote the judgment itself, to show how the investigation progressed:
“The investigation process post Akshardham attack happened as under:
• The incidence of Akshardham happened in the intervening nights between 24.09.2002 and 25.09.2002. An FIR was registered by PW-126 on 25.09.2002.
• According to the instruction of Superintendent of Police, the investigation of the complaint was handed over to Police Inspector Shri V.R. Tolia (PW-113).
• The investigation was then handed over to the Anti Terrorist Squad on 03.10.2002.
• The investigation was thereafter handed over to the Crime Branch which was assigned to PW-126 on 28.08.2003 at 6:30 p.m.
• The statement of PW-50 was taken at 8 p.m, on the same night of 28.08.2003, after receiving verbal instruction from higher officer-D.G. Vanzara in the morning.
• A-1 to A-5 were arrested on 29.08.2003.
 • POTA was invoked on 30.08.2003.
• The I.G.P. Kashmir sends a fax message to I.G.P. operations ATS Gujarat state on 31.08.2003 regarding A-6 being in the custody of Kashmir Police and that he has stated that he was involved in the Akshardham attack.
• A-6 was brought to Ahmedabad on 12.09.2003 and was arrested at 9:30 p.m.

A careful observation of the above said dates would show that the ATS was shooting in the dark for about a year without any result. No trace of the people associated with this heinous attack on the Akshardham temple could be found by the police. Then on the morning of 28.03.2003, the case is transferred to Crime Branch, Ahmedabad. This was followed by D.G. Vanzara giving instructions to the then-ACP G.S. Singhal (PW-126) about one Ashfaq Bhavnagri (PW-50). PW-126 was thereafter made in charge of the case on the same evening at 6:30 p.m. and the statement of PW-50 was recorded at 8 p.m., i.e within one and a half hours” (Para 131).
I am sure readers must be remembering the names like Vanzara and Singhal appearing in the above excerpts. They are the same infamous police officers who were known for conducting fake encounters and are currently under investigation/trial, in different cases. Look at the ‘inefficiency’ of Gujarat police and ATS who failed to get any information about the conspiracy for almost a year and then look at the efficiency of the Crime Branch unit that solved the case and arrested all the accused, in less than 48 hours of being entrusted with it! 

Readers may also have noted that the infamous and now repealed POTA was invoked in the investigation of this case. Another coincidence- the sanction to invoke POTA in the case was accorded by the then Home Minster Mr. Narendra Modi. Let us see what the apex court had to say about the process followed by our new Prime Minister.
“The prosecution had failed to prove that the sanction was granted by the government either on the basis of an informed decision or on the basis of an independent analysis of fact on consultation with the Investigating Officer. This would go to show clear non-application of mind by the Home Minister in granting sanction. Therefore, the sanction is void on the ground of non- application of mind and is not a legal and valid sanction under Section 50 of POTA” (para 77. Emphasis supplied be me).
At any other point of time, our civil society and Media would have been very much concerned about a finding by the Apex Court that our new Prime Minister failed to apply his mind while dealing with a matter involving, both national security and life of the accused. But then, the times are changing and the Sensex and TRP are on the rise!

                I will not go into details of the evidences adduced by both sides. Supreme Court found each and every story put forth, and each and every evidence put up by the prosecution, untrustworthy. Death penalty was awarded on the basis of retracted and invalid confessions obtained under duress and corroborated only by illegal and vague confessions of other accused person (Court found that those corroborating statements were also obtained illegally and under duress). The choice given to all the involved persons were, apparently, like what is stated by Muhammad Saleem- to choose between “Godhra, Pandya or Akshardham,” or between a terror case and immediate encounter killing. Suffice to say, the Supreme Court found, “the story of the prosecution crumbles down at every juncture” (Para 120). Supreme Court demolished the entire case in which three persons were granted death penalty, in the following words:
“Here, we intend to take note of the perversity in conducting this case at various stages, right from the investigation level to the granting of sanction by the state government to prosecute the accused persons under POTA, the conviction and awarding of sentence to the accused persons by the Special Court (POTA) and confirmation of the same by the High Court. We, being the apex court cannot afford to sit with folded hands when such gross violation of fundamental rights and basic human rights of the citizens of this country were presented before us” (Para 131. Emphasis by me).

Citizens have to be concerned when the High Courts are willing to confirm death penalties and justify insufficiency of admissible evidence by merely quoting, “Truth is stranger than fiction”. Thankfully, in this case the Apex Court countered the perverted use of the epithet by stating that the “renowned epithet by the author Mark Twain comes with a caveat that says, “Truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction must make sense” (Para 103).  However, that did not undo the damage for those citizens who had to stay for a decade in jail, with the stigma of terrorists!

What made the entire system to take such a perverted view about justice and national security? Who benefitted from such a gross violation of law? We saw how the involved police officers became blue eyed boys of the state and, subsequently, indulged in fake encounter killings with impunity (as charged). We also saw the Chief Minister becoming stronger and stronger, based on a propaganda about his government’s decisive actions against terrorism. We also saw the manner in which the person in whom the nation has now entrusted its future was taking serious actions without, as noted by the Court, any application of the mind. More sinister will be the conclusion, if we consider that the approval was indeed granted with sufficient application of mind. That will make the immediate future of this country’s justice system and human rights, at stake!

          The apex court further stated:
“Before parting with the judgment, we intend to express our anguish about the incompetence with which the investigating agencies conducted the investigation of the case of such a grievous nature, involving the integrity and security of the Nation. Instead of booking the real culprits responsible for taking so many precious lives, the police caught innocent people and got imposed the grievous charges against them which resulted in their conviction and subsequent sentencing” (Para 136. Emphasis by me).

These words are really alarming. These words from the highest judiciary of the land must cause serious thinking among concerned citizens and Media. More so, since we have now elevated the system from the Gujarat state, to the national level. Will we again hear the call for “stronger laws” like POTA to counter terrorism? Let me conclude by reminding, “POTA was repealed for the gross violation of human rights it caused to the accused due to abuse of power by the Police” (Para 73) and hope the sanctity of our justice system will not be made subservient to rulers’ image building exercise. 

PS: IN case you are interested in reading further, here is the link to the Supreme Court judgement in CRIMINAL APPEAL NOS. 2295-2296 OF 2010
Adambhai Sulemanbhai Ajmeri & Ors. …Appellants Vs State of Gujarat ...Respondent  WITH

1 comment:

  1. POTA was mostly Political Objective Through Arrest.
    Always societies suffered in silence when targeted injustice done by state and media went along cheering. Both POTA and Encounter kept voices dead or mute, & so labelled uncontested guilty.

    Its disturbing to see lack of conscience to correct, and more a smug "So What"

    Need for Accountability and a Liability on Wrong&Wrongful Actions is felt more. But, the energy and inertia shown in framing POTA wont be shown on such People's Laws.

    You have set the flood light on what is kept in dark.
    Thanks for the indepth inlook in brief presentation.
    TC, Bye!