The Supreme Court order granting bail to activists Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira demonstrates how even under a stringent anti-terrorism law, denial of bail need not be the norm, and a preliminary assessment can lay bare the weaknesses of a police case. It is difficult for someone arrested under serious provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to get bail. Under Section 43D(5), no court can grant bail if there are reasonable grounds to believe the accusation is true. Apart from this, an apex court judgment in 2019 holds that there cannot be a detailed analysis of the evidence at the bail stage, and bail must be decided only on the “broad probabilities” of the case. In this backdrop, it is quite significant that the Supreme Court has now granted bail to Mr. Gonsalves and Mr. Ferreira on merits. In the Court’s analysis, there is a clear debunking of the case. Apart from the absence of any evidence that the accused were part of a conspiracy, the Court has noted that the letters in which they were mentioned contained only third-party responses and none was recovered from them. In a telling comment, the order says, “Mere participation in seminars by itself cannot constitute an offence under the bail-restricting Sections of the 1967 Act (UAPA), with which they have been charged.”
This is the first time in the Bhima Koregaon violence case, in which activists and lawyers were arrested in 2018 on the charge of being part of a Maoist conspiracy, a court has recorded a finding that the accusations may not be true. Among those arrested in this case, lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj was released on “default bail”, that is due to the charge sheet against her not being filed within the stipulated time, and Telugu poet Varavara Rao got the benefit of bail on medical grounds. Writer and scholar Anand Teltumbde was released by the Bombay High Court, holding that it could not be presumed that he had received funds from a co-accused, while Father Stan Swamy died in prison. In the latest order, a two-judge Bench has now found that the letters and witness statements, relied on by the NIA to claim that Mr. Gonsalves and Mr. Ferreira were part of a conspiracy and recruitment of persons to commit terrorist acts, are of weak probative value and quality. It is no surprise that many sweeping claims by the prosecution in this case wilt under judicial scrutiny. There are also reports that some of the purported evidence may have been remotely planted on computers used by the accused. The time has come for a comprehensive evaluation of the merits of this whole case.