Sunday, Dec 10, 2023

Justice At Last?

Justice At Last?

Nearly four years after the attack on Parliament that shook the nation, the Supreme Court today acquitted Delhi University lecturer SAR Geelani, reduced the death sentence to Shaukat Guru to 10 years imprisonment, while upholding the death sentence f

Nearly four years after the attack on Parliament that shook the nation, the Supreme Court today acquitted Delhi University lecturer SAR Geelani, reduced the death sentence to Shaukat Guru to 10 years imprisonment, while upholding the death sentence for Mohammad Afzal. The fourth accused in the case, Shaukat's wife Afshan Guru, was also acquitted.

The trial court had awarded death penalty to Shaukat, Afzal and Geelani while sentencing Afsan to five years imprisonment for their role in the December 13, 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament. 

The Delhi High Court had upheld the death penalty to Afzal and Shaukat under Sections 302 (murder), 121 (waging war against the nation) and Sections 3(2) and 4 of POTA but had acquitted both Geelani and Afsan.  

The Delhi Police had appealed to the apex court against the High Court verdict and the Supreme Court has basically upheld the High Court verdict and has also reduced the sentence of Shaukat Hussain Guru.

Death Penalty to Afzal

Terming the attack on Parliament as an unparalleled assault on the supreme seat of democracy, Justice P.V. Reddi, pronouncing the verdict for the Bench, that also comprised Justice P P Naolekar,  in a jam-packed court, said there was clinching evidence against Afzal regarding his nexus with the slain terrorists who carried out the "terrorist act of most diabolical nature."

Afzal communicated with the deceased terrorists who executed the conspiracy and "did everything to set in motion the diabolical mission to attack Parliament", he concluded from the voluminous evidence submitted by the Delhi Police. "All evidence unerringly point to Afzal, a key conspirator, who played an active role in the execution of the plan," Justice Reddi said, observing that "by no standards this act of Afzal could be termed innocuous".

"He is definitely involved in the conspiracy to attack Parliament with the use of explosive substances," Justice Reddi said. "Afzal was a party to the conspiracy and the crime of enormous magnitude unparalleled in the history of Indian democracy." 

Terming the death sentence awarded to him by the trial court and the Delhi High Court as "most appropriate" Justice Reddi, writing for the Bench, said the attack on the supreme seat of democracy was a "terrorist act of gravest severity" and a "classic case falling under the rarest of rare category".

"The collective conscience of the society will be satisfied only if the death penalty is awarded to Afzal," the Bench said, detailing how he was in contact with the terrorists who executed the "terrorist act of gravest severity" disrupting normal life and spreading terror.

The manner in which he conspired to wage war against the nation and the support he extended for carrying out the criminal conspiracy made him a "menace to the society", the apex court said, taking away his right to life.

Helping Hand

Shaukat, who was awarded death penalty by both the trial court and the High Court, got a fresh lease of life as the apex court while holding him guilty of having knowledge of the conspiracy, found that he had not participated in the hatching of the plot to attack Parliament.

The court took into account the "helping hand" lent by him to Afzal to flee Delhi, but concluded that the evidence on record was "not sufficient to establish his complicity" in the crime and to link him to the activity of his cousin Afzal.

"The irresistible conclusion arising from the evidence on record is that he knew about the conspiracy, he was aware of Afzal's activities and there is a high degree of probability that he knew about the impending attack on Parliament," the Bench said while convicting him for not disclosing these to the authorities.

Setting aside the extreme punishment awarded to him, the Bench found him guilty under Section 123 of the Indian Penal Code for not informing the police or the magistrate about the conspiracy to launch an attack on Parliament and sentenced him to 10 years rigorous imprisonment.

In addition to this, the court imposed a fine of Rs 25,000 on him and ordered that in case he defaulted in paying the fine, he would have to undergo an additional year of imprisonment.

'Spectre of suspicion'

Interestingly, though the apex court upheld the High Court order acquitting Geelani, a lecturer in Zakir Hussain College, it said a spectre of suspicion hung over him because of his behaviour at the time of attack on Parliament and "false statements given by him to Delhi Police".

The Supreme Court upheld the judgement of the Delhi High Court acquitting Geelani of all charges in the case but refused to give him a clean chit.

Justice Reddi said Geelani's conduct at the time of attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001 was "disturbing" to note and created a "serious suspicion" about his role as he reportedly approved the terrorist act.

In addition, the court took note of Geelani's "untruthful pleas raised by him about his contacts with Afzal and Shaukat" and said it pointed a needle of suspicion at him.

However, Justice Reddi quickly added that no man could be convicted merely on the basis of suspicion, howsoever strong that might be. "But suspicion alone is not sufficient to convict a person," he said while also pronouncing that the apex court agreed with the High Court in acquitting Shaukat's wife Afsan. 

S.A. R. Geelani, who was attacked by an unidentified gunman on February 8 in front of the house of his lawyer, Nandita Haksar, had accused the Delhi Police of constantly "tailing" him and tapping his phones.

Lawyers Differ

Senior advocate Sushil Kumar, who represented Afzal in the apex court said, "He (Azal) should have been treated equally with Shaukat but the Supreme Court treated him otherwise".

"He is the single person among the four accused sentenced to death," he said adding that Afzal was not at all represented before the trial court though there was amicus curiae for him before the special court.

"I thought if his confession under POTA was excluded there was chance for him to be acquitted in the case but even after that the apex court felt he was party to the conspiracy to attack Parliament," Kumar said.

Senior advocate Shanti Bhushan, who represented Shaukat before the apex court said his (Shaukat's) conviction and 10 years rigorous imprisonment has taken him by surprise for the offence of not disclosing the conspiracy to attack Parliament, the point which he never argued either before the Delhi High Court or the Supreme Court. "I am bit surprised," he said.

N D Pancholi, who was Geelani's lawyer in the POTA court said, "Though there might be certain disturbing features like he had met (the attackers) once or twice, this suspicion cannot lead to believe that he was involved in this this suspicion cannot lead to the conviction. That is what the Supreme Court has said. The Supreme Court has said they have not found evidence against him to hold him guilty,"

Pancholi said the prosecution had built its case against Geelani on the basis of a tape of telephone conversations. "This conversation was in fact not even audible. Our contention was it was distorted, it was edited and it was not truly translated by the prosecution. They had distorted it in order to have some kind of evidence against him. Except that tape there is no evidence against Mr Geelani but even that evidence the court did not believe," Pancholi said.

Pancholi also maintained that "the court has not relied on the confessions" recorded by the police. "The court has ruled that the confession cannot be believed because the safeguards which are to be followed by the prosecution were totally disregarded"

Pancholi said the prosecution had deliberately floated various kinds of theories after Geelani's arrest. The prosecution said Geelani had bought a house for Rs 22 lakh and was running bills of Rs 75,000 to Rs 1 lakh on telephone calls made to the Middle East. Pancholi said such stories were carried on the front pages by some leading newspapers.

The same point was made by lawyer Nitya Ramakrishna: "What is also significant is that the Supreme Court has held the confessions brought by the police against Shaukat Guru and Mohammad Afzal as completely unreliable...that is a very significant achievement of the defence."

'The probe was proper'

Putting up a brave face to the acquittal by the Supreme Court of two of the four accused in Parliament terror attack case, Delhi Police said it had conducted the "best possible" investigation but remained non-committal on filing a review petition.

Joint Commissioner of Police (Special Cell) Karnal Singh maintained that the apex court's observation that there was a  "spectre of suspicion" against acquitted Delhi University lecturer S A R Geelani showed that its probe was proper.

"About Geelani, the Supreme Court has mentioned one thing. Even though he has been acquitted, the court has mentioned that it appears that there was a knowledge on his part about the attack on Parliament. But sufficient evidence is not available... Upholding of the death sentence awarded to Jaish-e-Mohammad militant Mohd Afzal also is a result of good efforts of the investigators. This was a terrorist case and whatever best evidence could be gathered was collected" 

Asked whether Delhi Police would file a review petition, he said legal advice was being taken on this.

The Special Cell, counter-terrorism wing of Delhi Police, had been probing the case since the day the attack took place. It had arrested Geelani and Afshan Guru, wife of another accused Shaukhat Hussain Guru, a day after the attack. Subsequently, its team had caught Afzal and Shaukat in Kashmir.

Geelani had accused personnel of the Special Cell of trying to eliminate him, but Singh rejected the allegations as "baseless".

(with inputs from agencies)