With courts across the country hearing only “urgent cases” through video-conferencing in view of the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of bail pleas in cases involving serious charges such as sedition and under provisions of the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) are stuck.
A pattern has been emerging in almost all the sedition cases slapped by the government during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens. From the case against 19-year-old Amulya Leona who was arrested on February 20, to that of three Kashmiri engineering students who were arrested in Hubli, Karnataka, on February 15, from 19 people in Azamgarh arrested on February 5 to a UAPA case against Assam activist Akhil Gogoi, who was arrested on December 12 — courts have not prioritised these cases as “urgent” and thus, their bail pleas have gone unheard.
On April 12, in response to Leone’s plea seeking bail, a Bengaluru court official wrote in an email, “Sir, extreme urgency not made out.”
Leone was arrested by the Bengaluru Police under Section 124 of the IPC (sedition) for raising “Pakistan Zindabad” slogans at a rally to protest against CAA.
After the sessions court did not hear her bail plea in April, Leone had moved the Karnataka High Court but her case did not get a detailed hearing. On Monday, after spending three months in jail, Leone withdrew her bail plea from the High Court with liberty to move the sessions court again.
Since the nationwide lockdown began more than two months ago, courts are hearing only “urgent” cases, with lawyers supposed to make a case for urgency. The district court judge was not impressed with Leone’s lawyer R Prasanna’s letter that said, “The petitioner is a 19-year girl and (it) is a matter of her life and liberty.”
Although there is no definite list of cases that qualify as “urgent”, courts have often prioritised cases that pose irreversible loss of life and liberty. Cases of death penalty, bail and eviction are also given urgent hearings.
In the case of the Kashmiri students who were arrested on sedition charges for allegedly raising pro-Pakistan slogans, the three — Talib Majeed, Basit Asif Sofi and Amir Mohiuddin Wahi — were denied bail by a district court on March 9, after which they approached the Karnataka High Court.
At the first hearing on April 16, a single-judge bench said a case of sedition cannot be made out. “Prima facie the complaint does not disclose any material which could be considered as an ingredient constituting the offence…,” Justice G Narender said while granting a week to the special prosecutor, who appealed for time to get case files from the district court, blaming the lockdown for the delay.
At the next hearing, on April 28, the case was listed before a new judge, who adjourned the case to April 30 because the petitioner’s lawyer was not audible during the videoconferencing. At the next hearing, the case was adjourned to May 5, when the special prosecutor objected to granting of bail.
The case is yet to be given a final hearing since certain technical deficiencies in the application have not been rectified. The court has now permitted both sides to rectify the deficiencies online since they are unable to travel to the court.
“It is most unfortunate that these cases are denied a hearing while new cases of sedition are being filed with urgency,” said Bengaluru-based advocate B T Venkatesh, who is representing the three students and who has appeared in many other sedition cases.
In the Azamgarh case, 19 people, who were accused of sedition in the wake of anti-CAA protests, continue to be in jail with their bail pleas rejected by a district court in March. Travel restrictions due to the lockdown meant they were unable to move the Allahabad High Court till last week. The case is yet to be listed there.
“We had written a letter to the chief justice when the lockdown was announced but we have now moved bail,” their lawyer Talha Rashid said.
In Assam, a National Investigation Agency judge is hearing a case of sedition against activist Akhil Gogoi for his role in the anti-CAA protests. Arrested on December 12, Gogoi was released on bail on March 23 after the NIA failed to file a chargesheet within the stipulated 90 days. However, Gogoi was immediately arrested in another case filed in December related to the anti-CAA protests. He has also been charged under UAPA.
Under the UAPA, a person can be detained for up to 90 days without bail and the detention can be extended for up to 180 days at the request of the prosecutor.
While hearings in these cases are delayed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, new sedition cases continue to be filed and arrests made, especially in Delhi in connection with the riots in February.
On May 2, the Delhi Police Special Cell filed an FIR against Delhi Minorities Commission chairman Zafarul Islam Khan on sedition charges after an allegedly divisive tweet. The Delhi Police also booked student leaders of Jamia Millia Islamia University for sedition and under UAPA in connection with the Delhi riots. Those arrested include 27-year-old Safoora Zargar, who is pregnant.
Last month, on April 6, the Punjab Police booked Simranjit Singh, a resident of Dharampura, for sedition over a Facebook post in which he alleged lack of ventilators for Covid-19 patients in Ludhiana. Singh was also charged under the Disaster Management Act, Epidemic Diseases Act, and for disobedience of orders by a public servant, all of which carry a jail term of not more than two years.
In Assam, Aminul Islam, an MLA of the AIUDF, was arrested on April 7 on charges of sedition over an audio clip where he purportedly criticised sending members of the Tablighi Jamaat to quarantine facilities.
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