The Supreme Court on Thursday directed Gujarat police not to arrest social activist Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand in a case of alleged embezzlement of funds for a museum at Ahmedabad's Gulbarg Society that was devastated in the 2002 communal riots.
Setalvad and Anand have been booked by the Crime Branch of Gujarat police on charges of cheating, breach of trust and under the IT Act, in a matter relating to the construction of Museum of Resistance in the Gulbarg Society.
On February 28, 2002, in the aftermath of the Godhra train burning incident, armed rioters had swooped on the Gulbarg society and killed 69 people, including former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri.
"It is directed that the petitioners (Setalvad and her husband) will not be arrested in connection with the case," a bench comprising justice Dipak Misra and justice Adarsh Kumar Goel said, while reserving its judgement on their plea seeking anticipatory bail.
While observing that it was not a case fit for custodial questioning, the two-judge bench said she will have to furnish all documents required by the police and cooperate with them.
The apex court directed Setalvad and Anand to provide all documents, vouchers and list of persons who gave donations to their NGOs Sabrang Trust and Citizens for Justice and Peace for carrying out investigation in the case.
The bench accepted the request of their counsel and Congress leader Kapil Sibal that their accountant will be allowed to represent along with them before the Gujarat police during the inquiry.
On the apprehension of Gujarat police on the issue of non-cooperation of the accused during the investigation, the bench told senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani, appearing for the Gujarat government, "If they will not cooperate with you in the investigation, you can file an application before us for cancellation of their bail."
The bench declined to give any commitment to Sibal whether the inquiry will be limited to post-2007 donations received by the two trusts for setting up a museum in memory of the victims or it will cover the activities of NGOs since 2002.
The bench replied, "Who are we to say. You are only on anticipatory bail qua FIR."
The SC also observed that money diverted from a trust account for personal use could be an auditing error and does not warrant custodial questioning.
The case was shifted from the bench of justice SJ Mukhopadhya and justice NV Ramana, which had granted the couple protection from arrest for six days on February 13, to a bench comprising justice Mishra and justice Goel. No reasons were given for the change in the bench.
The bench of justice Mukhopadhaya and justice Ramana had said during the last hearing that the allegations against Setalvad and Ahmed were "grave" and it was not even a case for quashing the FIR.
It had even asked couple to "surrender and seek regular bail" as they have been accused of collecting funds in the names of riots victims and religion but later granted the relief.
There were a number of occasions during the 30-minute hearing when the previous bench put questions to Setalvad's lawyer and Congress leader Kapil Sibal and making it clear that the "allegations" against them were "grave" and warned against bringing "politics" in the matter.
The bench refused to get bogged by political statements being made in the court by Sibal and observed: "We will look into the allegations in the FIR mainly. Let it be very clear, we will be looking at the case not by names but like the case of any ordinary individual."
The Gujarat government had registered the case against Setalvad last year. Her anticipatory bail plea and that of her husband was earlier rejected by the Gujarat high court, prompting them to appeal to the apex court the same day for fear of being arrested.
(With PTI inputs)