New Delhi: The Supreme Court Friday granted interim bail to social activist Teesta Setalvad, who was arrested more than two months ago on the charges of forgery and fabrication of evidence in the 2002 Gujarat riots cases.
A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice UU Lalit directed the Gujarat Police to produce Setalvad before a local court in Ahmedabad Saturday so that her release can be formalised subject to bail conditions.
“Having attention to all the relevant aspects of the matter, the appellant is entitled to the relief of interim bail,” the SC ordered.
The court allowed Setalvad’s request and asked the trial court to accept cash surety from her as a bail bond, instead of insisting on a local surety. It would be open for the trial court to stipulate the interim bail conditions, the court clarified.
Without going into the rival contentions advanced by both sides – Setalvad and the Gujarat government – the bench observed that the social activist was entitled to interim bail, considering certain aspects of the case. It also said the relief was in wake of peculiar facts of the case, including that Setalvad is a woman.
The apex court made it clear that as far as Setalvad’s regular bail is concerned, the Gujarat HC, where her bail petition is still pending, will take a final call. The court observed that it has considered the matter from “the standpoint of interim bail” and has “not touched upon the merits of the submission”.
“The entire matter on merits shall be considered by the HC independently and uninfluenced by observations made by this court in the order,” the court mentioned in its order.
It also restrained other accused persons in the case from citing Friday’s order as a precedent in their bail applications, as and when they are filed. The order, it clarified, “shall not be taken to be a reflection and not used by the other accused as and when occasion arises” and that the court shall consider their case “purely on merits”.
Until the HC doesn’t decide Setalvad’s plea, her passport would be kept in the custody of the trial court in Ahmedabad where her case is pending, the SC further added, while directing her to “tender complete cooperation in the pending investigation”.
Arrested on 25 June, Setalvad has been accused of tutoring, fabricating and forging evidence in Gujarat riots cases and trying to frame innocent persons. An FIR was registered against Setalvad on 25 June, a day after the SC dismissed a petition filed by Zakia Jafri, widow of Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, who was killed in the riots, and Setalvad, challenging the clean chit given to then Gujarat chief minister and now Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other high-ranking state officials in the alleged larger conspiracy behind the 2002 riots.
Setalvad had approached the SC after the Gujarat HC on 2 August issued a notice on her appeal challenging the Ahmedabad trial court’s 30 July order refusing her bail in the case. The HC had, however, turned down her plea for interim bail until a decision was taken on her regular bail plea. Moreover, it adjourned the matter by six weeks and listed the matter for a hearing on 19 September.
Matter argued for two days
Aggrieved by the long adjournment, Setalvad filed a petition in SC under Article 136 of the Constitution, which gives the top court discretion to entertain a plea filed against any judgment, decree or an order passed by any court in the country. In this, she questioned both the trial court order as well as the HC’s decision to deny her interim bail.
The matter was argued at length for two days. On Thursday, the top court asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the state, to explain if it was a norm for Gujarat HC to give long dates. In response, Mehta Friday denied claims that the HC had been unfair to Setalvad and that the judge followed a uniform practice.
He then presented witness statements to the bench – two submitted to the police, two recorded before the magistrate – to assert his point that Setalvad was a part of a larger conspiracy to malign the state.
Mehta accused Setalvad of painting Gujarat as a “state of rapes” and claimed she had refused to cooperate with the police during her seven days of custody with the investigators.
“She is an intelligent person, she refused to give answers,” he said, adding in the same vein, “She is entitled to remain silent, that is her right.”
According to him, the investigation was at a crucial stage and was in the process of finding out how the conspiracy was hatched and who all were a part of it.
Mehta urged the bench not to “set a bad precedent” by entertaining Setalvad’s plea, especially since her regular bail petition was still pending before the state HC.
‘HC should have considered plea’
Setalvad’s counsel, senior advocate Kapil Sibal, rejected the charges levelled against his client and said the state had made her out to be its “biggest enemy”.
“This is persecution and not prosecution,” Sibal said, questioning the state’s action on the alleged incidents, which he added happened “20 years ago”.
According to him, the affidavits, which the state claims were forged, were given to the SC in support of a petition by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which culminated in the riots cases getting transferred to the court-appointed SIT.
After considering the submissions, counter-arguments and “certain important aspects of the matter”, the SC said Setalvad was entitled to interim relief of bail.
“In our view, the HC ought to have considered the prayer for release on interim bail during the pendency of the matter,” the court held.
The aspects that favoured Setalvad were that she was in police custody for seven days, had been in jail for over two months and the alleged offences pertain to the period of 2002, or at best till 2012 when the SIT completed all its enquiries.
“The essential ingredients of the investigation, including custodial interrogation having been completed, the matter assumed a complexion where the relief of interim bail till the matter was considered by the HC, was evidently made out,” it said.