IT has been 13 years since a bomb explosion killed six and injured over 100 in the town of Malegaon near Nashik, and 10 since the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over the case from the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS).
In Maharashtra, the Malegaon 2008 blast trial is one of the oldest and longest pending cases being prosecuted by the central agency, which was set up the same year as the incident in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks to fast-track and prosecute terror-related cases. Since 2018, the trial has been designated a special court to exclusively hear the case on a daily basis.
Also long-pending is the other terror attack in Malegaon in 2006, where four bomb explosions had caused 31 deaths and left over 300 with injuries. The trial in the case, assigned to one of the four special NIA courts in Mumbai, has not even started yet.
Set up as India’s first federal investigation agency, the NIA Act has a specific provision under section 19 which mandates that trials investigated by the agency shall be held on a day-to-day basis on all working days. The Act further states that the cases shall “have precedence to the trial of any other case” and “shall be concluded in preference to the trial of such other case”. The trial in the Malegaon 2008 blast began 11 years after the incident; the trial in the Malegaon 2006 case is yet to begin, 15 years after the blast.
These two cases, though, are not the only ones to suffer delays. The NIA is handling over 20 other cases in the states and in many of them, the trials being conducted in special courts are far from completion. The Mumbai city civil and sessions court has four special designated NIA courts for cases probed by the central agency across the state. Of these, only one — the court conducting the trial in the Malegaon 2008 blast case — is heard on a daily basis with 198 witnesses having deposed so far.
In the rest of the courts, cases investigated by the NIA form a part of the caselist where many other pending non-NIA cases are also heard. They make it to the list two or three times a month.
One of the four courts, for instance, is also designated to hear all cases against gangster Chhota Rajan since he was extradited in 2015. Since Rajan has over 50 pending cases, the court ends up hearing one or more of his cases daily.
Another special court hears cases of organised crime and terror investigated by the Mumbai crime branch or ATS, while the fourth, which has the maximum number of NIA cases, including the Elgar Parishad case and the recent Ambani terror scare case, is also assigned regular criminal cases as well as those under the Maharashtra Protection of Interest of Depositors Act.
As per court records, apart from cases by the NIA related to counterfeit currency, only one prosecuted by the NIA has seen a judgment so far. In June this year, three men were sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment while two others were acquitted on charges of a terror conspiracy.
The case dated back to 2012 and was taken over by the NIA in 2013. In 2017, the accused sought to plead guilty stating that the condition of their homes had deteriorated since their arrest, and with only 13 witnesses having deposed then, they did not want to await a long trial. The court had disallowed the plea and proceeded with the trial which took another four years to complete with over a year of it being stalled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was also the first case in Maharashtra involving a terror conspiracy prosecuted by the NIA where the accused had sought to plead guilty. In multiple cases, including those in Delhi and Bengaluru, the accused have pleaded guilty and faced a conviction on grounds like remorse or apprehension of a long incarceration.
Officials say that in the earlier pending cases, the NIA was handed over the probe after many years after the offence too, making gathering of evidence a challenging task. In more recent cases, when the NIA takes over the probe immediately from the state investigating agencies, the process has been quicker.
An officer said that delays also take place due to pleas by the accused pending before various courts. The high rate of pendency among criminal cases is also reason why NIA cases are not the only priority for courts despite provisions in the NIA Act.
And yet, unlike other criminal cases, in cases probed by the NIA, accused are arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The provisions of the Act make bail difficult for the undertrials even if the cases are pending for long. In the Malegaon 2008 blast case for instance, the arrested accused, including now BJP MP Pragya Singh Thakur, spent nine years in jail without a trial.
In August this year, the Bombay High Court granted bail to a 28-year-old arrested for alleged links with Islamic State in 2016, citing that his Right to Life was in jeopardy as the trial has not begun. “Where the period of incarceration awaiting adjudication of guilt becomes unduly long, right to life and the protection of fair and reasonable procedure envisaged by Article 21 are jeopardised,” the court said.