Students freed after court pulls up cops
Three student activists charged in connection with the 2020 Delhi riots walked out of Tihar jail on Thursday evening after a trial court ordered their immediate release and criticised the police for delaying the verification of their permanent addresses.
Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, and Jamia Millia Islamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha were freed around 7.30pm after spending a year behind bars, two days after they were granted bail by the Delhi high court.
They were received by family, friends, students and activist groups, who chanted slogans in their support. “We survived one year in jail because of the support we received from so many people. It gave us strength,” said Kalita.
Narwal said their struggle against suppression of dissent will continue, and Tanha said their bail order strengthened his faith in the judiciary.
The three students were arrested in May 2020 for allegedly inciting violence in north-east Delhi during communal riots that broke out in February 2020, killing 53 people and injuring 400 others.
The Delhi high court granted them bail on Tuesday but Delhi Police told a trial court on Wednesday that it needed six days to verify their permanent addresses, a process that couldn’t be completed earlier due to lack of time.
The trial court reserved its verdict on Wednesday. Separately, the police also moved the Supreme Court against the high court verdict. That petition will be heard on Friday but is unlikely to affect their liberty.
Till the time the Supreme Court finally decides the appeals and accepts the Delhi Police’s request for setting aside the bail orders, the three shall not be sent back to the jail. As a common principle of bail jurisprudence, once an accused gets released following a bail order, they cannot be sent back to jail till the bail order is finally quashed on merits.
On Thursday, additional sessions judge Ravinder Bedi said the police’s delay in verifying the permanent addresses could not be a “plausible reason” to keep the three people imprisoned.
“The release warrant shall be immediately prepared and be sent to the jail superintendent concerned via mail…by the court master of the court concerned,” the court said, adding that the police could submit the details about the permanent addresses of the accused by June 23.
The trial court also rejected the police’s request for six days to submit verification reports and said their Delhi addresses should be verified by 5pm on Thursday. Narwal’s permanent address is in Haryana while Kalita and Tanha are from Assam and Jharkhand, respectively.
Earlier in the day, the counsel for the three accused moved the Delhi high court again, challenging the trial court’s deferment on the police’s plea. A bench of justices Siddharth Mridul and Anup J Bhambhani, while posting the matter for 3.30pm, said that the trial court is expected to move further with “promptitude” and “expeditiously” in the issues raised before it in wake of the order passed by them.
It said that the issue of release should be considered with “alacrity”. When the lawyers went back to the sessions court, they learnt that the release order for the three people was already issued.
Kalita, Narwal and Tanha were charged with rioting, unlawful assembly, promoting religious enmity, criminal conspiracy and sedition under sections 146, 147, 153, 120B, 124A of the Indian Penal Code and the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
They were arrested in May, and separate cases were filed against them.
Narwal and Kalita were granted bail on January 29 in a case of unlawful assembly, rioting and blocking the road for holding protests at the Jafarrabad metro station. Tanha was granted bail on May 30, 2020, for alleged involvement in instigating a crowd in Jamia Nagar on December 15, 2019. On Tuesday, a two-judge high court bench termed the charges against them “stretched”, “verbiage”, and “hyperbole”, and said that the state may have blurred the line between the “right to protest” and “terrorist activity”by going after the protesters. The bench held that the foundations of this nation stood on surer footing than those likely to be shaken by a protest, however vicious, organised by college students who operated from the confines of a university. Upon her release on Thursday, Kalita told reporters that they didn’t get the full copy of the high court order in jail but learnt from friends and family that it was a “fantastic order”.
“It is really important that courts come out and say this because people like us and many others are languishing in jail just for protesting against this government, for raising their voice against this government which is the very basis of democracy,” she said. Narwal, who lost her father to Covid last month and was granted three-week interim bail to attend his funeral, criticised the government.