5 years after arrest, SC grants bail to Shoma in Bhima case | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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5 years after arrest, SC grants bail to Shoma in Bhima case

ByAbraham Thomas, New Delhi
Apr 06, 2024 06:00 AM IST

While ordering her release, the court imposed a string of conditions requiring her to surrender her passport and not leave Maharashtra without the trial court’s permission

The Supreme Court on Friday granted bail to academic Shoma Kanti Sen over five years after her arrest in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence case, holding that no prima facie case was made out against her for being a member of banned terrorist outfit or any terrorist activity punishable under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, or UAPA.

Shoma Sen (centre) seen during a court visit in Pune in 2018. (HT ARCHIVE)
Shoma Sen (centre) seen during a court visit in Pune in 2018. (HT ARCHIVE)

Granting bail to Sen, a former Nagpur University professor aged 66, the bench headed by justice Aniruddha Bose considered her medical condition, advanced age and the delay in the beginning of trial and went on to impose stiff bail conditions including restrictions on her travel and movement. The court also ordered her mobile location to remain active and paired with the investigating officer of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) which is probing the high-profile case.

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“We are of the opinion there is no reasonable ground for believing that the accusations against the appellants for commission of the offences incorporated in Chapter IV and VI of the 1967 Act are prima facie true,” said the bench, also comprising justice AG Masih.

“We do not find prima facie commission or attempt to commit any terrorist act by the appellant,” the bench added.

Sen was among 16 activists, lawyers and researchers arrested in 2018 in connection with the violence that broke out during the bicentennial commemoration of a British-era war in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon village. One person died during the violence that also sparked sweeping protests by Dalit groups who gather in the hundreds of thousands at the war memorial every year. The Pune Police, and then NIA, argued that an event in Pune on December 31, 2017 – called the Elgar Parishad, where allegedly inflammatory speeches were made – stoked the violence.

Sen, who is currently lodged in Byculla jail, is the 8th accused in the case to get bail. In August 2022, the top court granted bail to Telugu poet P Varavara Rao on medical grounds. Another accused, Sudha Bharadwaj, was released on default bail by the Bombay high court in September 2022. Academic Anand Teltumbde was also released by the Bombay high court in November 2022, which was upheld by the top court. Lawyers Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira were freed on bail by the Supreme Court last year. Two other accused - Mahesh Raut and activist Gautam Navlakha - were granted bail by the Bombay high court in September and December last year. However, they have not been released as appeals against their bail are pending in the top court. Father Stan Swamy, yet another accused in the case, died in 2021.

There are seven other accused who have yet to get bail. They include Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Sagar Gorkhe, Rames Gaichor, Jyoti Jagtap, and ex-Delhi University professor Hany Babu.

The court went through the evidence presented by NIA, which accused Sen of having links with the banned terrorist outfit Communist Party of India (Maoist), but wasn’t impressed.

Allowing her bail, the top court said, “Taking cognisance of the composite effect of delay in framing charge, period of detention undergone by her, the nature of allegations against her vis-à-vis the materials available before this court at this stage in addition to her age and medical condition, we do not think she ought to be denied the privilege of being enlarged on bail pending further process.”

While ordering her release, the court imposed a string of conditions requiring her to surrender her passport and not leave Maharashtra without the trial court’s permission. She was directed to keep only one mobile phone with her during the bail period. In addition, to track her movement, the court directed the location status on her mobile phone to be kept active and to pair the device with that of the investigating officer. In addition, she was asked to report to the local police station once every fortnight.

“On breach of any of the conditions, it will be open to the prosecution to seek cancellation of bail,” the bench said. These conditions were identical to a similar order by the top court passed in July last year while releasing Gonsalves and Fereira.

Sen was accused under sections 15 (terrorist act), 17 (raising funds for terrorist act), 18 (conspiracy), and 38 (membership of a terrorist organisation), among other sections of UAPA andthe Indian Penal Code.

For bail to be granted under UAPA, the court is guided by Section 45D(5) of the act which states that an accused person shall not be released on bail if the court, on a perusal of the case diary or the charge sheet, is of the opinion that there are “reasonable grounds for believing that the accusation against such person is prima facie true”.

The court concluded that this restriction would not apply to Sen as the bench found that she didn’t prima facie “commission or attempt to commit any terrorist act”.

Further, on the allegations of raising funds for a terrorist act, it said, “Most of the materials have emanated from recovery of documents from devices of third parties... None of the materials reveal receipt of any funds by her or her direct role in raising or collecting funds.”

NIA, represented by additional solicitor general (ASG) KM Nataraj, had claimed that it had a strong case against Sen as she was not only possessing Maoist material but played an active part in the unlawful activities of CPI(Maoist).

The court noted a statement by one of the witnesses claiming Sen to be an “urban Naxal” working for CPI (Moaist). “On this thin thread, we cannot apply the rigours of Section 43D (5) of the 1967 Act against her,” said the bench.

“In our prima facie opinion, the allegations that the appellant is a member of a terrorist organisation or that she associates herself or professes to associate herself with a terrorist organisation are not true, and at this stage, she cannot be implicated in the offence under Section 38 of the 1967 Act,” said justice Bose in his 54-page verdict.

The judgment further stated, “Mere meeting of accused individuals or being connected with them through any medium cannot implicate one in Chapter VI offences under the 1967 Act, in the absence of any further evidence of being associated with a terrorist organisation. Such association or connection must be in relation to furtherance of terrorist act.”

The bench clarified in its order that the observations on the nature of allegations were only “prima facie views” and the future course of her prosecution would be dependent upon the framing of charges, the nature of evidence and her own defence.

Sen approached the top court after the Bombay high court turned down her bail plea on January 17 last year. The high court allowed her to approach the trial court again for bail but she preferred to approach the top court where similar pleas by other co-accused were pending.

Refusing to send her back to the special NIA court for bail, the top court said, “We do not think it would be in the interest of justice to remand the matter to the special court at this stage.” It further said that even the high court, in exercise of its appellate power under Section 21(2) of the NIA Act, 2008, could have examined the second supplementary charge sheet while examining her bail plea.

Sen complained of suffering from osteoporosis with degeneration of both her knees and was diagnosed with a condition of irritable bowel syndrome that required her to be treated at a better facility other than the government hospital.

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