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Imprisoning Political Beliefs

Judicial propriety hit a new low with the sentencing to life imprisonment of five persons—Mahesh K Tirki, Pandu P Narote, Hem K Mishra, Prashant Rahi and G N Saibaba—with Vijay N Tirki sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment by the Gadchiroli Sessions Court in Maharashtra on 7 March 2017.

Judicial propriety hit a new low with the sentencing to life imprisonment of five persons—Mahesh K Tirki, Pandu P Narote, Hem K Mishra, Prashant Rahi and G N Saibaba—with Vijay N Tirki sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment by the Gadchiroli Sessions Court in Maharashtra on 7 March 2017.

The 827-page judgment is extremely disquieting and bizarre. After perusing it we wonder whether the judge was “far more executive minded than the executive itself.” The Human Rights Forum (HRF) condemns the imposition of such a harsh punishment for acts construed as offences under the highly debatable Sections 13, 18, 20, 38, 39 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967 read with that other equally dubious statute—Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.

Human rights organisations have been consistently demanding the repeal of the UAPA and Section 120B of the IPC on the grounds that they disrespect fundamental political freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution. We have pointed out time and again that these statutes outlaw ideologies and criminalise political beliefs and thoughts. Successive governments have paid no heed to these issues and have gone on to introduce even more undemocratic provisions through a series of amendments to the UAPA. The amendment to the UAPA, introduced in 2012, is a replica of and a replacement for the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), 2002. The ambiguous definition of “terrorist” contained in POTA was reintroduced in the UAPA. The amended UAPA criminalises the freedom to form an association and affords unbridled discretionary powers to investigating officers, leaving much room for misuse. This is a statute tailor-made for abuse. It is not just obnoxious and objectionable in principle, but evidence points to its abuse, especially against politics that is inconvenient to the establishment.

It needs to be borne in mind that the six were not charged and convicted for committing acts of violence. They were charged and convicted for purportedly being members of and being associated with the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist), for possessing literature of that proscribed organisation and for providing financial assistance to it. The HRF is in principle against the banning of any political party or organisation. Various statutes invoked to ban parties or organisations are basically political instruments camouflaged as penal law. What they ban is not violence—which has been proscribed ever since the birth of the state in history—but social sympathy and political like-mindedness with the viewpoint of the Naxalites. Such an approach is unacceptable in a democracy.

Our rulers are fond of saying that all those who oppose undemocratic laws like the UAPA are supporters of terrorism. We refuse to be cowed down by this tactic of silencing critics with threats. Opposition to unjust laws does not mean support for violence and crime. It is no longer possible to deny that behind the political militancy that is called Naxalite terrorism there are deep-rooted social and economic problems. It is foolish to say that proclamation of this truth is the same as supporting terrorism. Governments that do not have the patience and the will to identify and address problems invariably try to meet them with cruel laws. Consequently, the rights of people, the impartiality of the judicial system and our democratic political culture are the casualties.

This sessions court judgment is bad in law on several counts. In convicting the six, the judge relied upon untrustworthy evidence. Pertinently, there were hardly any independent witnesses. It was a virtual beeline of police witnesses, stock witnesses and tutored ones, which is hardly enough to convict a person, much less for life. The judge relied upon documentary evidence consisting of material saved within electronic gadgets like memory cards, mobile phones, pen drives, CDs, hard disks and a few pamphlets, which were allegedly seized from the accused. Their contents were anything but incriminatory. Several doubts were raised by the defence counsel about the modus operandi of these seizures, which were not answered properly in the judgment. The judgment heavily relied upon the confessional statements of the accused Nos 1 and 2, both of which were later retracted. In fact, the two were vulnerable Adivasis, compelled to be witnesses against their own cause.

The HRF hopes that the appellate court will reverse the judgment. We call upon all those who cherish the rule of law and democracy to seek the repeal of the draconian UAPA and Section 120B, IPC.

V S Krishna, S Jeevan Kumar
General Secretary and President, Human Rights Forum,
Andhra Pradesh and Telangana

Updated On : 17th Mar, 2017

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