Without bail, without charges being framed, without justice! Release all 15-surviving accused in the Bhima Koregaon case.
June 6, 2023 will mark five years that five activists are behind bars. They include Mahesh Raut, an anti-displacement campaigner, Rona Wilson, a political prisoners’ campaigner, Shoma Sen, a feminist activist and professor, Sudhir Dhawale, a Dalit rights activist and Surendra Gadling, a Dalit lawyer who takes people’s rights cases pro-bono.
How did this happen?
It was this day that the Maharashtra police arrested the five activists under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967. Prior to the arrests, multi-city raids were carried out on April 17, 2018. On June 8, 2018, the Pune police showed a letter to press which it claimed to have recovered from the April raids. The letter, dated April 2017, was addressed to “comrade Prakash” by ‘R’ urging for plotting for the assassination of the prime minister, in the style of Rajiv Gandhi. On November 15, 2018, a 5000-page chargesheet was filed against all five “top urban Maoist operatives” involved in a conspiracy aimed at killing the prime minister. The chargesheet claimed the five activists were involved in procuring arms and for mobilizing the Maoist-backed Elgar Parishad meeting of December 31, 2017.
Additionally, 11 more persons including deceased Father Stan Swamy were arrested between August 28, 2018, and October 10, 2020, in the same case. In all, two chargesheets and a supplementary one have been filed. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over the case in January 2020. However, there are no signs of the trial beginning, and there is no end in sight to the continued incarceration of the 15-surviving accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, which from all accounts seems to be a trumped-up case in which the investigative and judicial process itself is the punishment.
A series of violations
- Unbridled Powers of the Police: Newspaper reports suggest that the police did not have a proper court order, nor did it observe the necessary protocols before conducting raids in April 2018. The police held a press conference on August 31, 2018 (after the second round of arrests) despite the matter being sub judice.
- Curtailment of Rights of Accused: Despite the significance of digital evidence in this case, so far, 60 percent of the clone copies have not been shared with all the accused (including the 11 arrested after the June 2018).
- Denial of Bail: Under UAPA, bail is an impossibility as has been underlined by a recent ruling of the apex court. All five activists continue to remain behind bars.
- Untold Harassment: Bail applications are often caught between judicial delays and multiple chargesheets and diverse prosecuting agencies. In January 2023, Shoma Sen’s bail application was rejected by the Bombay High Court because it showed no cognizance of the fact that the investigation was transferred to the NIA and that the latter had shown new evidence in its chargesheet. The High Court told her to go back to the NIA court. Sen has challenged the High Court’s rejection in the Supreme Court on the grounds that the case was transferred while her bail application awaited hearing in the HC and that no fresh allegations have been made against her.
- Punished without Trial: Charges are yet to be framed in this case. In August 2021, the NIA told the Bombay High Court that charges won’t be framed till August 2025. In August 2022, the Supreme Court told the NIA to decide on framing of charges within three months. In November 2022, the NIA told the SC that it would take another year to decide on framing of charges.
- Denial of Prisoner Rights: The issue of denial of basic health rights in prison has been shocking and the institutional murder of Father Stan Swamy has exposed the criminal negligence of the prison authorities. The arbitrary and discriminatory attitude of the prison authorities is evident from the fact that the incarcerated activists have had to repeatedly approach the courts for basic facilities.
Points that indicate setting up of a false case
- The BK 16 were arrested allegedly because of their provocative role in the caste violence which happened the day following the Elgar Parishad meeting on December 31, 2017. It bears remembering that while only one or two of them were present at the meeting, none of them had anything to do with the caste violence, a point clarified by a police official who has testified before the Bhima Koregaon Commission that the Elgar Parishad had nothing to do with caste violence. Even the chargesheet remains unclear about perpetrators and victims of Bhima Koregaon violence.
- The initial hype surrounding the case was the assassination plot. The purported letter was shared by the Maharashtra police with the media in June 2018. On August 31, 2018, after the second round of arrests, the police again showed the letter during its press conference. However, in the 17 draft charges submitted by the NIA to the Bombay High Court, the assassination plot finds no mention! The main objective is a Maoist political attempt at setting up a janatana sarkar through revolution.
- Between February-2021—July-2021, three Arsenal reports were published regarding planting of evidence through malware in the electronic devices of the accused. Further, review of leaked database showed phone numbers of eight of the BK accused were targeted by Pegasus spyware. The prosecution has rejected the published findings which cast doubts on the evidence gathered, including the fact that question of police’s involvement have been raised.
- In August 2022, Surendra Gadling questioned the timing of the ED’s plea to summon him in a money laundering case which it had filed the previous year against the CPI (Maoist). Gadling said that despite being behind bars for over four years, the ED sought the plea only after the Arsenal reports were published. Gadling said that the design of the ED was to detain him further.
- We demand unconditional release of all 15 surviving activists.
- We demand the withdrawal of this trumped-up case lodged against reputed activists.
- We demand the immediate revocation of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and all other draconian legislations that impinge on the democratic rights of people.
Joseph Mathai and Paramjeet Singh