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Bombay HC Rescues Reliance Workers Ensnared in Bhima Koregaon Case Web

Saurav Datta |
The workers, leaders of the Mumbai Electric Employees Union, were denied due process rights and made to suffer illegal incarceration, Justice Mridula Bhatkar of the court rules.
Bombay High Court

Image for representational use only; Image courtesy : NDTV

What does it say about a government which goes all out to put dissenting workers of an organisation into the dragnet of a terror plot which is so ludicrous that it has invited criticism from all quarters? Welcome to the BJP-led government of Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra, which had booked eight workers of Reliance Industries in the Bhima-Koregaon case of plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and had booked them under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and made them suffer incarceration for 11 months and still counting, and by even denying them due process rights.

On December 17, the Bombay High Court came to the rescue of five of the eight workers- Satyanarayan Rajayya Karrela, Babu Shankar Buchayya Vanguri, Shankarayya Lingayya Gunde, Ravi Rajanna Maarampalli and Saidul Narsimha Singapanga  -- and set aside a Sessions Court order granting extension of time beyond 90 days period for filing of the chargesheet.

The arrested workers are the founders and committee members of the Mumbai Electric Employees Union. For many years, the union has been in the forefront of the workers’ struggle and has crusaded for higher wages, better working conditions and other workers’ rights and issues.

The grounds for the High Court to do so were that accused workmen were not produced in court and that their lawyers were not notified about the extension, nor was their say considered by the Sessions Court. The HC held that this was in clear violation of the provisions of the while setting aside the Sessions Court order dated April 9, 2018.

Denial of Due Process

On April 4, 2018, the application for extension of time for filing chargesheet under UAPA was filed by the Special Public Prosecutor before the court. Pursuant to that, notices were issued to the accused, who were lodged in extremely harsh conditions in Arthur Road Jail. The matter was fixed further on April 9, 2018. At that time, the accused persons were not produced before the court. The last date of completion of 90 days was on April 12, 2018. On April 9, the Sessions Judge passed the order and extended the time till May 10. Thereafter, the matter was again called out and the order was passed regarding the remand application. It was mentioned that “the counsel of the accused were present and the jail custody is extended till 23rd April, 2018 in view of extension of time for filing the charge sheet.”

Sunil Pasbola and Susan Abraham, the lawyers for the accused workers, challenged the fact that the refusal of notice is to be taken as deemed service in view of the ratio laid down by the Supreme Court in the case of Hitendra Vishnu Thakur & Ors. vs. State of Maharashtra & Ors., (1994) 4 SCC 602 and in the case of Sanjay Dutt vs. State, through CBI (1994) 5 SCC 410.

In the words of the court,

“On 9th April, 2018, the Sessions Court passed two orders and it appears from roznama that two orders were passed on the same day but at different time. The first order was passed on Exhibit 16 by which the time to file the charge sheet was extended till 28th May, 2018. At that time, neither the accused nor their advocates were present. The roznama below Exhibit 16 does not disclose the presence of the advocates of the accused like the roznama of remand Application wherein the names of all the advocates of the accused are appearing. It is to be noted that immediately on the next date, i.e., 10th April, 2018, the counsel of the accused has moved an application stating that the order of extension of time is to be set aside because the accused were not given opportunity to be heard.

 In the case of extension of time for filing charge sheet beyond 90 days, it is the duty of the Court to give hearing to the accused or his lawyers because his indefeasible right which is mentioned under section 167(2) is going to be affected. \

On perusal of the order dated April 24, 2018, nowhere has the judge mentioned about the presence of the advocates of the applicants/accused on April 9, at the time of deciding the Application Exhibit 16. It appears that no advocate of the applicants/accused was present and without giving any opportunity to the applicants/accused, the order of extension of time to file the charge sheet was passed.”

Justice Mridula Bhatkar’s ruling

The High Court, through Justice Mridula Bhatkar, highlighted the contradictions in state’s version that the workers were represented when the order was passed on the basis of the court records of April 9, which shows that advocates of the accused were not present. The single bench held:

“In the present case, whether the notice was served, whether it is refused or it was not served at all are disputed facts and it is a word against word. All the accused are in the prison, hence it is the duty of the State to ensure their production on the date of remand either by their physical production or through video conferencing. It was not done. Therefore, the Sessions Judge, on 9th April, 2018 when the accused were not produced on remand date, should have directed the production of the accused either on the same day or on the next day, i.e., 10th April, 2018 and then by serving the notice in the Court ought to have given audience to the accused on the point of extension of time for filing charge sheet.

 It is to be noted that all the accused persons were represented through their advocates, whose presence was shown specifically in the remand application, which was considered later, on the same day. The Sessions Judge at least should have given the opportunity to the counsel of the applicants/accused to argue the matter and put up their say on the point of extension of time for filing the charge sheet at least on the next day, i.e., 10th April, 2018 or thereafter but prior to 12th April, 2018.

The service of notice or opportunity to give audience to the applicants/accused when the issue of extension of time for filing charge sheet is involved, is not considered an empty formality but all the steps are required to be taken meaningfully and effective service of notice on the accused is necessary.Under such circumstances, the order dated 9th April, 2018 of extension of time is set aside and also the order below.” (emphasis supplied).

On the very next day, the prosecution moved the High Court for a stay on the Order, but that was rejected. Susan Abraham told NewsClick that she and her other lawyers immediately moved the Sessions Court after the HC ruling, and the decision is awaited.

 This goes to prove that while the State is going out on a limb to crush all forms of dissent, a few bastions to protect liberty remain.

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