Aseemanand acquitted in Samjhauta Express blast case
Court says charges not proved against four accused, Pakistan lodges protest.Updated: Mar 20, 2019 23:42 IST
A special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court in Haryana’s Panchkula on Wednesday acquitted Naba Kumar Sarkar, alias Aseemanand, and three other accused in the 2007 Samjhauta Express blast case that killed 68 people, prompting Pakistan to summon the Indian high commissioner in protest.
This is the third terror-related case in which Aseemanand, a former functionary of a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliate, has been acquitted. He was earlier cleared in the 2007 Mecca Masjid blast case in Hyderabad and the 2007 Ajmer blast case - two other cases that gave rise to the phrase “saffron terror”, which Hindutva organisations reject as false propaganda.
“All the four accused, Naba Kumar Sarkar alias Swami Aseemanand, Lokesh Sharma, Kamal Chauhan and Rajinder Chaudhary have been acquitted by the court,” NIA counsel Rajan Malhotra said after the verdict was announced by NIA special judge Jagdeep Singh in a courtroom where the media was not allowed.
“While pronouncing the ruling, the NIA special judge Jagdeep Singh stated the prosecution has failed to prove its case and that therefore, all four accused are hereby acquitted. The detailed order of the ruling is awaited,” Mukesh Garg, counsel for Aseemanand, told reporters outside the court.
A visibly relieved Aseemanand, who was already out on bail, didn’t speak to the media but another of his lawyers, Manvir Rathi, said, “He was a victim of political terrorism. All cases against him including Samjhauta blast case were planted due to political reasons.”
Shortly after the verdict, Pakistan summoned the Indian high commissioner to register a “strong protest and condemnation”. “The acquittal of the accused today, 11 years after the heinous Samjhauta terror attacks, makes a travesty of justice…” said a statement issued by the foreign office. Pakistan called upon India to explore “judicial remedies”.
Officials with knowledge of the developments said the Indian high commissioner rejected Pakistan’s assertions and highlighted that due process of law had been followed in a transparent manner.
He also pointed to the lack of cooperation by Pakistan in serving summons on Pakistani witnesses in the case. The high commissioner also asked for an expedited trial in the 2008 Mumbai attack case and the 2016 Pathankot attack case, and pointed out that Pakistan hadn’t taken “credible” steps against the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which took responsibility for the February 14 Pulwama strike that killed 40 troopers.
A verdict in the case was expected last week but a last-minute intervention by a Pakistani national through her lawyer resulted in the deferment of the judgment.
In her intervention, Rahila Wakil, who hails from Dhingrawali village of Hafizabad district in Pakistan, said that her father Muhammad Wakeel was one of the victims of the train blast and added that all Pakistan nationals who were witnesses in this 2007 case are “ready to appear” to testify. Her petition was dismissed by the court on Wednesday.
“Another UPA time false case falls apart,” tweeted Bharatiya Janata Party national general secretary Ram Madhav, referring to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance that was in power when the charge sheet was filed.
Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti questioned the grounds on which the accused were acquitted.
“Despite damning evidence, the accused including a former RSS member have been acquitted. God forbid, had they been Kashmiris / Muslims, they would be pronounced guilty & imprisoned without even a fair trial. Why such double standards and leniency towards saffron terror?” the former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister asked.
Two coaches of the India-Pakistan Samjhauta Express were engulfed in flames on February 18, 2007 after improvised explosive devices (IED) planted in unreserved compartments were set off near Panipat in Haryana. Sixty eight people were killed, most of whom were Pakistani nationals. The bi-weekly train, which is jointly run by the Indian and Pakistani Railways, was travelling from New Delhi to Attari, the last station before the Pakistan border. At Attari, passengers switch to a Pakistani train.
The probe was handed over to the NIA in July 2010. The agency filed a charge sheet in July 2011 against eight people and said two general coaches of the train, which had 16 cars in all, caught fire after the bomb explosions. Two unexploded suitcase bombs were also found in other compartments of the train.
The agency said the accused were angry with the “Islamic terrorist attacks” on Hindu temples - Akshardham (Gujarat), Raghunath Mandir (Jammu) and Sankat Mochan Mandir (Varanasi). The investigators sought to establish a link between the Samjhauta, Mecca Masjid and Ajmer blast cases. The defence argued that the link was tenuous and that the statements of the accused were taken under duress.
Of the eight accused, Aseemanand, Sharma, Chauhan and Chaudhary appeared before the court and faced trial. Sunil Joshi, the alleged mastermind of the attack, was shot dead near his home in Madhya Pradesh’s Dewas district in December 2007.
The three other accused -- Ramchandra Kalsangra, Sandeep Dange and Amit, who was mentioned only by one name -- could not be arrested and were declared proclaimed offenders.
NIA had charged the accused with murder and criminal conspiracy, and under the Explosive Substances Act and the Railways Act. According to NIA investigators, the agency recorded the statements of 224 witnesses out of a total of 299; 51 witnesses turned hostile; and nine witnesses died; and 13 Pakistan nationals did not record their statements. NIA officials said during the trial that they sent several summons to the Pakistani witnesses through the external affairs ministry that didn’t receive a response.
(with agency inputs)