Bhima Koregaon Case: Relief for activist as Supreme Court allows for interim bail

NIA argued against bail, court considers exceptional circumstances.

The Supreme Court today granted interim bail to Mahesh Raut, a key accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, allowing him to attend the ceremonies related to the last rites of his grandmother. The bench, comprising Justices Vikram Nath and SVN Bhatti, heard the matter and ruled in favour of Raut’s request for a temporary release.

Background of the case

Mahesh Raut, a land and forest rights activist, has been extensively involved with Gram Sabhas in the mining regions of Gadchiroli, Maharashtra. His activism centres on empowering local communities and protecting their rights against encroachments by mining corporations.

On June 6, 2018, Mahesh Raut, along with five other individuals, was arrested by the Pune police. The charges against them included spreading Maoist ideology, funding banned organizations, and recruiting individuals for the Maoists. These arrests were part of a broader investigation into the Bhima Koregaon violence that occurred in January 2018, which led to clashes between Dalit and Maratha communities.

The Pune police alleged that inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad event held on December 31, 2017, in Pune, triggered the violence. The event was organized to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, a significant event for the Dalit community. According to the authorities, Raut and others were implicated based on letters and emails retrieved from their electronic devices, allegedly linking them to Maoist activities.

Mahesh Raut, along with other accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, faces several serious charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) 1967 and the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Procedural history

In November 2019, a session’s court in Pune rejected the bail applications of the accused, including Raut, citing prima facie evidence suggesting their involvement in activities aimed at undermining democracy in India.

In November 2021, an NIA court rejected Raut’s bail application, noting the National Investigation Agency (NIA)’s submission that his name appeared in a letter retrieved from co-accused Rona Wilson’s computer. Raut contested this, arguing that the letter’s authenticity was questionable due to forensic reports indicating malware infiltration in Wilson’s electronic devices.

In April 2022, Raut sought discharge from the charges, claiming that the evidence (letters) against him was compromised and tampered with. Despite this, the Bombay High Court in May 2022 dismissed a petition reviewing its earlier order denying default bail to Raut and others.

On September 21, 2023, the Bombay High Court granted bail to Raut but stayed the order for a week to allow the NIA to appeal to the Supreme Court.

On September 27, 2023, the Supreme Court admitted the NIA’s appeal against Raut’s bail and extended the stay on the High Court’s order.

As of June 2024, Mahesh Raut remains in judicial custody at Taloja Central Jail, awaiting trial. He recently sought interim bail from the Supreme Court to attend his grandmother’s last rites, and the hearing was scheduled for June 21, 2023. The Supreme Court has repeatedly extended the stay on the Bombay High Court’s bail order, pending further hearings and decisions.

Court proceedings for interim bail

Advocate Aparna Bhat, representing Raut, presented the case, emphasising that the Bombay High Court had granted bail to Raut, although the order was subsequently stayed by the Supreme Court. She highlighted the recent passing of Raut’s grandmother in late May and the necessity for him to participate in the remaining ceremonies.

Justice Nath addressed the NIA counsel, seeking their submissions. The NIA counsel argued against the urgency of the interim bail, questioning the necessity of approaching the Supreme Court instead of waiting for parole. Justice Nath explained that the pending Special Leave Petition (SLP) and the stay granted by the Supreme Court justified the immediate hearing.

Justice Bhatti noted that applications for interim bail under such special circumstances should be considered, clarifying that this was not a request for regular bail but a temporary measure to allow Raut to fulfil family obligations. The court acknowledged the significance of the ceremonies scheduled for June 29-30 and July 5-6.

Court’s decision

Justice Nath dictated the order, noting the facts and circumstances of the case, including the period of incarceration Raut had already undergone and the specific nature of his request. The bench expressed its inclination to grant interim bail for two weeks, from June 26 to July 10. The terms and conditions of the bail were delegated to the Special or Trial Court, with the NIA given the opportunity to suggest stringent conditions to prevent any misuse.

Justice Nath emphasized that Raut must surrender without fail on July 10, concluding the court’s decision to grant the interim relief.

“Considering facts and circumstances, and period of incarceration already undergone, and nature of request made, we are inclined to grant interim bail of 2 weeks to applicant, which may commence from 26 June and end on 10 July. Terms and conditions may be determined by Special/Trial Court. NIA may impress upon the court to impose stringent conditions (as necessary). Applicant shall surrender without fail on 10 July.”

Case citation: National Investigation Agency v. Mahesh Sitaram Raut Crl.A. No. 003048 / 2023


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