A district court in Gadchiroli Tuesday sentenced wheelchair-bound Delhi University professor G N Saibaba and four others to life imprisonment under various sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the IPC for aiding and abetting Naxal activities. A sixth convict was handed 10 years of rigorous imprisonment.
Delivering the judgment in a packed court, Principal District and Sessions Judge S S Shinde said, “Merely because Saibaba is 90 per cent disabled is no ground to show him leniency… he is physically handicapped but he is mentally fit, a thinktank and a high-profile leader of banned organisations.”
The others who were handed life terms are Hem Mishra, Prashant Rahi, Mahesh Tirki and Pandu Narote. The sixth accused to be convicted, Vijay Tirki, was handed rigorous imprisonment because it was his first-time offence, said the judge. The six were convicted under Sections 13, 18, 20, 38 and 39 of the UAPA along with Section 120-B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC.
Following the ruling, defence lawyer Surendra Gadling said they would “move against it in the High Court”. Saibaba’s wife Vasantha said she was “shocked” at the verdict that “should have led to an acquittal”. Alleging “direct state involvement” in the case, she said there was “fire emanating from her eyes instead of tears” after hearing the verdict.
Hailing the verdict, Special Public Prosecutor Prashant Sathianathan said, “This would probably be the first case of its kind where the prosecution has been able to conclusively establish its case almost entirely with electronic data evidence.”
While delivering the judgment, the judge said it had been “established by prosecution that all six accused belong to banned organisations CPI (Maoist) and Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF), which is a Maoist front”.
“Several people had been killed and public property has been destroyed in the Maoist violence in Gadchiroli. Because of Naxal movement and violent activities… the position of Gadchiroli district is same as it was in the year 1982 and for that all accused, who are members of the banned organisations, are responsible,” said the judge.
“Hence, in my opinion, the imprisonment of life is also not a sufficient punishment to the five accused but the hands of the court are closed with the mandate of sections 18 and 20 of UAPA and in my opinion it is a fit case to award sentence of imprisonment of life to the accused,” said the judge.
The judge also handed down various jail terms to the accused under other sections of the UAPA, ranging from four years to 10 years, to run concurrently with the life sentence.
Maharashtra police had arrested Saibaba at his Delhi residence in May 2014 following the arrests of Mishra, Mahesh and Pandu from Aheri in Gadchiroli in August 2013.
Mahesh and Pandu were accused of being Naxal couriers planning to escort Mishra to meet Naxal commander Narmadakka. According to police, Mishra was found in possession of a microchip containing documents from Saibaba to be delivered to Narmadakka.
In September 2013, police arrested Rahi at Deori in Gondia district along with Vijay Tirki, who was also accused of being a Naxal courier.
According to police, many documents, a hard disk and pen drives were seized from Saibaba’s residence. The professor, who was placed under suspension by the university, was jailed till he was granted bail by the Bombay High Court on health grounds in May 2015. He was jailed again before being granted bail by the Supreme Court in September 2016.
The trial in Gadchiroli began in November 2016 following which the prosecution produced 23 witnesses and the defence none. The prosecution relied heavily on what it claimed to be “strong electronic evidence” seized from Saibaba’s residence. It argued that the evidence “clearly established that the authorship of documents written in different names of ‘Prakash’ and ‘Saibaba’ was the same, that is, Saibaba’s”.
According to the prosecution, the documents listed under Saibaba’s name included a letter to his daughter’s school headmaster, one to his college and another to a Hyderabad institute. It said that those written under the name ‘Prakash’ included letters to Maoist bosses in which he spoke about his handicap, his frustration in Delhi and his wish to work underground instead of managerial work.
In the judgment, the judge cited one of these documents containing an interview in which Saibaba traced the history of the Maoist movement and RDF, and how the second outfit was taking “revolutionary work” forward.
“The finding of all these documents in the same personal computer belonging to Saibaba and the subsequent electronic tracking of the original authorship has proved beyond doubt that Saibaba was working on behalf of CPI (Maoists),” said Sathianathan.
While the defence argued that the evidence could have been tampered with by police, the prosecution said the material was sealed at the time of seizure and handed over to the forensic science laboratory.
The defence had also argued that the seizure was flawed and that the witness at the site had been “managed” and “tutored” by police. The prosecution countered by arguing that the witness was provided with police protection as he was staying in Gadchiroli, which was a Naxalite-affected area.
The defence had also argued that Saibaba’s prosecution by the Madhya Pradesh government was wrong. It said that the probe should have been conducted by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) since the charges against Saibaba came under the scheduled offences category. The prosecution had replied saying that section 10 of the same Act provided for the state to undertake such a probe.
According to the judgment, the UAPA sections under which conviction was granted are:
Section 13: Unlawful activities punishable upto seven years.
Section 18: Conspiracy punishable by not less than five years upto life.
Section 20: Being a member of terrorist gang or organisation punishable for life.
Section 38: Offences relating to membership of a terrorist organisation punishable by imprisonment not exceeding 10 years.
Section 39: Offence relating to support given to terrorist organisation punishable by imprisonment not exceeding ten years.