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Supreme Court stays arrest of 5 activists, says ‘dissent safety valve of any democracy’

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A three-judge bench headed by CJI Dipak Misra orders the five activists to be kept in ‘house arrest in their own homes’.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court Wednesday came down heavily on the government crackdown on five human rights activists and stayed their arrests till next week.

A three-judge bench headed by Chief justice of India Dipak Misra said the five activists must be kept in “house arrest in their own homes”.

“Dissent is the safety valve of any democracy,” Justice D.Y. Chandrachud told Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta who opposed the court intervention.

Also read: First they came after JNU, now it’s human rights activists: Umar Khalid

On Tuesday, Pune police began multi-city searches and arrested poet P. Varavara Rao from Hyderabad, advocate Sudha Bharadwaj from Faridabad, Gautam Navlakha from New Delhi, and Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves from Mumbai.

Bharadwaj and Navlakha are currently under house arrest after the high courts of Delhi and Punjab & Haryana intervened Tuesday night, but Rao and three others were taken to Pune and produced before a magistrate. They will now have to be released.

Five eminent citizens, including historian Romila Thapar, moved the top court early Wednesday against the arrests in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon violence this January.

‘Previous record’

Questioning the standing of the five petitioners, Mehta said, “They may be good citizens, we don’t know.” He also erroneously claimed that those arrested have a “previous record,” referring specifically to Sudha Bharadwaj.

The bench lashed out at the government law officer for making false statements, prompting him to apologise to the court.

A team of six senior advocates appeared pro bono for the petitioners.

“They are making arrests in random almost nine months after the incident where two renowned judges — justice P.B. Sawant and B.G. Kolse Patil — were present,” Congress leader and senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi argued for the petitioners.

Also read: Professors, poet, lawyers: The 10 ‘Maoists’ arrested for Bhima-Koregaon violence

Senior advocates also strongly batted for those arrested. Indira Jaising said one of them was her was her junior, while Rajeev Dhawan said he’s been funding Bharadwaj’s organisation for over five years.

“It could be any of us next. You can’t go after those who defend human rights,” Jaising told the court.

No mention of Modi assassination plot

Mehta made no mention of the alleged Maoist plot to assassinate Prime Minster Narendra Modi in court. He strongly opposed staying the arrests of activists the Pune police claimed are connected to the plot.

The government did not bring this up even before the Delhi high court Wednesday or before the Punjab and Haryana High Court late Tuesday.

Although a contentious letter detailing the alleged plot has not been made part of the record, the prosecutor mentioned its contents before a Pune magistrate Wednesday.

The case will be heard next on 7 September.

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  1. The NHRC has taken suo motto cognizance of these five arrests, finding, prime facie, that standard operating procedures had not been followed, which may have led to violation of the human rights of the individuals concerned. This aspect may come up for consideration on the 7th. Also, the justification for effecting the arrests, in light of settled law on the subject, as opposed to summoning them to join the investigation and subject themselves to questioning. 2. The apex court has once again demonstrated that it remains the ultimate protector of the fundamental rights of all Indian citizens. Unfortunately, for want of its time and their own limited resources, many ordinary persons in difficulty cannot invoke its jurisdiction. The team of outstanding lawyers who appeared pro bono this afternoon would cost a fortune for a normal litigant to assemble. It is expected that the authorities will use their sweeping powers with great sensitivity to the constitutional rights of ordinary citizens.

    • Like the one we have in a pressure cooker! The full statement is: “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed the pressure cooker may burst.” Please correct!

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