28 July 2023 8:07 AM GMT
The Supreme Court on Friday granted bail to Bhima Koregaon-accused and activists Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira, both of whom have been lodged in jail since August 2018 for alleged offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. They were arrested in connection with the 2018 caste-based violence that broke out at Bhima Koregaon in Pune, and for having alleged links with...
The Supreme Court on Friday granted bail to Bhima Koregaon-accused and activists Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira, both of whom have been lodged in jail since August 2018 for alleged offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. They were arrested in connection with the 2018 caste-based violence that broke out at Bhima Koregaon in Pune, and for having alleged links with the proscribed far-left outfit, Communist Party of India (Maoists).
This judgment was delivered by a bench of Justices Aniruddha Bose and Sudhanshu Dhulia that heard Gonsalves and Ferreira’s plea after the Bombay High Court declined their bail pleas in 2019. The division bench had reserved its verdict on March 3.
The Court granted bail to the duo considering the fact that they have been under custody for almost five years. Although allegations against them are serious, that alone cannot be the sole ground to deny bail and justify their continued detention pending the trial, the Court stated.
"...juxtaposing the appellants' case founded on Articles 14 and 21 with allegations [against them], and considering fact that almost 5 yrs have elapsed, we are satisfied they have made out case for bail. The allegations are serious, no doubt, but for that reason alone, bail cannot be denied to them....we have referred to materials available against them at this stage. This material cannot justify continued detention of appellant s pending final outcome", Justice Bose read out the operative portion of the judgment.
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While granting bail, the Court took into account that Vernon Gonsalves was once earlier convicted of offences including those under UAPA, and that there is a pending criminal case against him on allegations of a similar line of activities. Therefore, it proposed to impose certain conditions.
While setting aside the Bombay High Court's order denying them bail, the Supreme Court Court directed that they shall be released on bail on such conditions as the special NIA court may impose.
The Court stated that some of the conditions should be that :
However, the special court could independently frame other bail conditions as well, the bench clarified. "In the event that there is a breach of these conditions, or any of the conditions imposed independently by the trial court, it would be open for the prosecution to seek cancellation of bail without further reference to this court. Similarly, if the appellants seek to threaten or otherwise influence any of the witnesses in either of two cases - whether directly or indirectly - then also prosecution shall be at liberty to seek cancellation of bail," the bench further held.
Senior advocates Rebecca John and R. Basant, appearing for Gonsalves and Ferreira respectively, over the course of three days, had argued that the material on the basis of which the National Investigation Agency sought to implicate the appellants, besides being indirect and having no ‘nexus’ with the appellants, was also grossly insufficient. The crux of their contention was that the documents that formed the basis for the charges under the anti-terror statute were neither recovered from the appellants’ electronic devices, nor sent by or addressed to them. In support of their argument, reliance was placed on the Bombay High Court’s decision(which was upheld by the Supreme Court) to grant bail to Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit scholar who is a co-accused in the case.
However, on behalf of the National Investigation Agency, Additional Solicitor-General KM Nataraj had insisted that the material on record was ‘ample’ and ‘sufficient’ for a prima facie case to be discerned within the meaning of Sub-section (5) of Section 43D of the UAPA. He claimed that there were several documents and witness statements that corroborated the agency’s version of events. The law officer also argued that their case was not ‘similarly placed’ as that of Anand Teltumbde owing to differences in the material available on record.
Activists Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira, along with 14 others, have been accused by the National Investigation Agency of being responsible for the caste violence that broke out near the Koregaon-Bhima war memorial in Pune.
The Pune police and later, the NIA contended that "inflammatory speeches" at Elgar Parishad – an event to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima – triggered the clashes between Maratha and Dalit groups near the village of Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra. It was their claim that the Elgar Parishad conclave was backed by Maoists. In the aftermath of the Bhima Koregaon violence, 16 activists, including Gonsalves and Ferreira, were arrested for allegedly conspiring and planning the violence and charged with various provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Indian Penal Code based on letters and emails primarily retrieved from their electronic devices. One of them – Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy passed away while in custody in July 2021.
Gonsalves and Ferreira were both arrested in August 2018. The following year, Justice Sarang Kotwal of the Bombay High Court declined their bail pleas, saying that there was a prima facie case to show they were ‘active members’ of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) tasked with recruiting members for the organisation. The court also declined bail to lawyer-activist Sudha Bharadwaj, who was a professor at Delhi’s National Law University at the time. This order was challenged in the Supreme Court in the current petitions.
In the same year, a common application for default bail was also filed by them and seven other accused, which was rejected by a special court in Pune. This was challenged in the Bombay High Court, but even as it granted default bail to Bharadwaj in December 2021, a division bench of Justices SS Shinde and NJ Jamadar refused to grant default bail to the eight others – Sudhir Dawale, P Varavara Rao, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut, Vernon Gonsalves, and Arun Ferreira. One among them – Telegu poet and activist Varavara Rao – has been released on bail by the Supreme Court on medical grounds last year.
Earlier this month, a bench headed by Justice Aniruddha Bose also adjourned the hearing in the bail plea of another accused, activist Jyoti Jagtap, saying that the judgments on Gonsalves and Ferreira’s bail applications would be delivered soon. “A date will be given. Because those two matters have been [pending] for some time. Let the judgement be delivered in these first,” Justice Bose said.
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