The cavalier approach of the police, especially in Delhi, to terror investigations has long hampered the country’s fight against terrorism. In many cases, the real culprits remain at large even as responsibility is wrongly fixed on persons who are either innocent or only peripherally connected to a particular incident. The terrible consequences of this unprofessionalism were revealed on Thursday when the Delhi High Court ordered the acquittal of two men wrongly sentenced to death in the 1996 Lajpat Nagar market blasts case. The Court was unsparing of the prosecution which, it said, had gone beyond “lapses and inefficiencies” to produce evidence whose “nature and truthfulness” were in serious doubt. The message is inescapable: under pressure to show results, the police often fudge evidence, not bothering that this sleight of hand can rob an accused of the most precious gift ever — his life. In this case, the wrong done to Mirza Nissar Hussein and Mohammed Ali Bhatt was so enormous that when the higher court set it right, the two men found themselves dramatically transported from their condemned world of despair and death to full life and liberty.

In their judgment, Judges S. Ravindra Bhatt and G.P. Mittal made it a point to rebut the oft-used excuse in terror cases: that the nature of terrorism makes it difficult for the prosecution to meet the “impossible standards” of proof demanded by the courts: “In matters of liberty, the weakness of the state surely can’t be an excuse for lowering time-tested standards, especially in serious crimes where the accused stand to forfeit their life...” Indeed, with the court unequivocally reiterating a fundamental principle of justice-delivery, the time has truly come to reassess a state of affairs where manufactured evidence passes for investigation and acquittals are blamed on legal technicalities or on the unreliability of witnesses, more so in terror cases. In another judgment of great import delivered in October this year, the Supreme Court overturned 11 convictions under the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), rejecting the prosecution’s plea that it had committed only a technical error in overlooking a key safeguard of TADA. The court’s answer to this was that in the land of Gandhi, the means were necessarily inseparable from the ends. Rather than going after innocents and building cases on evidentiary quicksand — as it appears they have been doing in many cases — investigative agencies prosecuting terrorist crimes must learn to rely on improved technical and forensic evidence. At the end of the day, that is the only way to prevent the escape of real terrorists.

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