In a relief to journalist Poonam Agarwal, Associate Editor of The Quint, the Bombay High Court on Thursday quashed the FIR registered against her for abetment of suicide of a jawan who was interviewed by her in a sting video.
Agarwal had conducted a sting operation with the assistance of an ex-military man and Kargil war veteran Deepchand Singh to show that 'sahayak system' of engaging subordinate officers for menial work for seniors was being followed in Army camps, despite its ban by Army as per circular dated January 19, 2017.
In the sting video published during February 2017, several officers, who were made to do menial work in a military camp at Deolali, Nashik, accused their seniors of harassment. The identities of the officers in the sting video were concealed by blurring their faces.
After the video went viral online, Lance Naik Roy Mathew, who was interviewed in the video, committed suicide by hanging on March 7, 2017. Following this, an FIR was registered for abetment of suicide against Agarwal and Deepchand for offences punishable under Sections 306,451, 500 read with 34 of the Indian Penal Code. Offences punishable under Sections 3 and 7 of the Official Secrets Act were also included in the FIR.
This FIR was sought to be quashed by the petition filed by Agarwal and Singh through Advocate Uday Warunjikar.
During the course of hearing, the Division Bench of Justices Ranjit V. More and Bharati Harish Dangre had viewed the video and its unedited raw footage in chambers and came to the conclusion that no offences were made out against the petitioners.
While hearing the petition on August 29, the very same bench had doubted the maintainability of charges under Section 306 IPC. "The deceased committed suicide because his seniors scolded him and not because of the accused", observed the bench. The Court had also wondered how offences under Official Secrets Act could be made out against them.
In response to this, the public prosecutor submitted that the sting operation was carried out in a highly restricted military camp.
Earlier, the High Court had granted anticipatory bail to Agarwal and Singh with respect to this FIR as per order dated April 26, 2017. While allowing the application for pre-arrest bail, Justice Revati Mohite-Dere observed, "After viewing the clip, it appears that the purpose of the sting operation was to show that sahayaks were made to do menial work like taking dogs for a walk, taking children to schools, driving the wives of officers to parlours, shopping etc, contrary to the circular dated 19th January 2017".
It was also observed that "merely because the sting operation was done in a prohibited area would not automatically attract the provisions of Sections 3 and 7 of the Official Secrets Act". Prima facie observing that the offences were not attracted, the bail application was allowed.
Agarwal has also filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court, seeking guidelines for application of Official Secrets Act against journalists and directions to curb the practise of sahayak system, which is pending on this date.