Friday, Oct 31, 2003
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ALL IN ALL, the Delhi High Court's verdict in the high-profile Parliament attack case will be remembered less for whom it convicted and more for whom it acquitted. In acquitting S.A.R. Geelani, a Delhi college lecturer, and Afsan Guru, wife of one of the accused, the two-member Bench has overturned the controversial and ill-reasoned judgment of the designated POTA court, one that was widely regarded as having made a string of presumptions in favour of the prosecution that had absolutely no basis in law. The case against Mr. Geelani who was convicted and sentenced to death by the Additional Sessions Judge, S.N. Dhingra was ludicrously weak. The lecturer in Arabic was said to have been in contact with the co-accused, Mohammed Afzal and Shaukat Hussain Guru, a fact of no significance by itself and one that Mr. Geelani freely admitted. The prosecution also made much of an intercepted telephone conversation between Mr. Geelani and his brother, which was interpreted in an extremely fanciful manner to suggest that the former was involved in the attack on Parliament House. While holding, and quite correctly, that such flimsy evidence cannot be used to draw inferences against Mr. Geelani, the Delhi High Court has drawn attention to the total lack of evidence against the lecturer in critical areas. For instance, there was no evidence that Mr. Geelani was in touch with any of the five terrorists who were slain in the attack. Moreover, there was absolutely nothing on record to suggest he had a role in arranging hideouts and procuring either arms or explosives used in the conspiracy.
While the designated POTA court had absolved Afsan Guru of being a part of the conspiracy, it found her guilty of failing to report it despite having prior knowledge. The Delhi High Court, however, found that there was insufficient evidence even to draw an imputation that she was aware of the conspiracy, thus raising more questions about the disturbing manner in which the prosecution went about its job in its apparent over-enthusiasm in cracking this high-profile case. If there is a perception that the Delhi High Court's judgment is a `soft' one, it is mistaken. This is borne out by its decision to enhance the sentence awarded by the designated court against Afzal and Shaukat Guru on one count. The High Court sentenced them to death for the offence committed under Section 121 (waging war against the state) even though the designated court had only imposed a sentence of life imprisonment under this Section.
At one level, the Delhi High Court's judgment is a welcome reflection of the strength of the judicial process, particularly its capacity for self-correction. It comes at a time when there are serious anxieties about the increasing abuse of power and disregard for civil liberties in the name of waging a war against terrorism. At another level, the Court's judgment has indirectly exposed how, despite the much-touted safeguards in the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the draconian legislation makes it inordinately difficult for an innocent man to defend himself. The very fact that Mr. Geelani could have been convicted and sentenced to death by one court of law and acquitted on the ground that the evidence "does not even remotely, far less definitely" point towards his guilt by another reveals the inherent danger in the anti-terrorism law that dispenses with the safeguards contained in ordinary criminal procedure. Mr. Geelani's travails lend an additional dimension to the fatal flaws in POTA, which in its short history has already demonstrated that it can be used to fix political opponents and put people behind bars for indefinite periods. Its use in the Parliament attack case provides another telling reason why POTA should go.
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