The Supreme Court on Friday ie 02/09/2002 granted interim bail to social activist Teesta Setalvad and directed her release by Saturday on the condition that she surrenders her passport and cooperates with the investigation into the case accusing her of falsifying evidence in the 2002 Gujarat riots cases.
“The essential ingredients of investigation, custodial interrogation having been completed, the matter assumes a complexion where the matter of interim bail till the matter is considered by the high court is evidently made out,” a bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Uday Umesh Lalit said.
Teesta Setalvad and former Gujarat DGP RB Sreekumar were arrested on June 25 on charges of forging and fabricating false evidence in the 2002 Gujarat riots cases. She applied for bail but the request was rejected by an Ahmedabad court on July 30. She later approached the Gujarat high court which issued notice on her appeal on August 3, declined interim bail and listed the next hearing on September 19. Setalvad approached the top court against this order and the rejection of bail by the trial court.
“In our view, the high court ought to have considered her prayer for grant of interim bail during the pendency of the matter,” the bench, also comprising justices S Ravindra Bhat and Sudhanshu Dhulia, said as it went on to grant her bail till the high court hears her bail plea.
The circumstances that went in her favour were the fact that she is a woman, has been in custody for over two months, the allegations pertain to the period from 2002 and at best before 2012, and her custodial interrogation for seven days being over.
The top court clarified that its ruling should neither be taken to reflect on the merits of the case nor be cited for relief by other accused.
“We have considered the matter from the standpoint of interim bail and have not touched upon the merits of the case…We add further, that the relief of interim bail is made in the peculiar fact that appellant is a lady. It shall not be taken as a reflection or taken as a ground for relief by other accused.”
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta appearing for the Gujarat government argued against the top court hearing the plea since the matter was pending before the high court, saying it creates a bad precedent.
Mehta also brought records of orders passed by the same high court judge who heard Setalvad’s case on August 3 to show that she was not singled out as alleged by Setalvad and to demonstrate that other petitions, including those filed by women accused, were scheduled to be heard in September end or early October.
The court said, “We are not considering whether appellant be released on bail or not. We are considering from the standpoint that during the period when the matter is in high court, (should the) custody of appellant be insisted upon or she be granted interim bail. Having given our attention to all aspects, we are of the view that the petitioner is entitled to the relief of interim bail.”
The court directed the Gujarat government to produce her before the trial court concerned by tomorrow and asked the trial judge to fix such conditions to enable her presence during the investigation. Two conditions were imposed by the top court – to surrender her passport and cooperate fully with the investigation agency and appear before the police when requisitioned.
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal appearing for Setalvad requested that local surety should not be insisted upon for her bail as she may find it difficult to find persons locally who can stand surety. Amused by this statement, Mehta said, “The petitioner saying that she cannot get a local surety speaks volumes. I am sure she has local surety. The bench allowed Sibal’s request.
The court added that the high court should consider the entire matter “uninfluenced by any observations made by this court”.
Earlier in the day, Mehta produced the statement given by witnesses pointing to Setalvad’s role in providing witnesses in the riot cases with pre-typed and pre-signed statements to be submitted to a special investigation team (SIT) probing nine major riot cases under the supervision of the Supreme Court.
The bench wondered how Mehta got access to the Section 164 statement of witnesses which are to be in the trial court’s custody. “It has to be in a sealed cover and is to be submitted directly by the court. How did you get it,” asked the bench.
Mehta said that it was obtained from the court and was meant for the top court’s consumption. The court wished to know if these witnesses deposed during the trial of the 2002 riot cases. Mehta said, “This is a case of evidence. Should this Court go into this question in an appeal against bail filed by the petitioner.” He further stated that the petitioner collected ₹8 crore and the same was spent on purchasing expensive wines, and duty-free shops.
“It is not that it is a case of no evidence. This is a case of conspiracy and investigation is at a crucial stage,” Mehta said. He also defended the high court order, saying that the petitioner was in the habit of maligning the state and all institutions. “Position of high court judges is precarious. They are abused and maligned left and right and there is no forum for them to contest it,” Mehta submitted.
Sibal said, “I have not made any allegation against any judge or institution,” while producing orders passed by the same judge who heard Setalvad’s case on August 3. “The state is deeply interested that she (Setalvad) does not come out of jail.”
Sibal said one of the witnesses being projected as a crucial witness to testify against Teesta was Rais Khan, a former associate of Teesta, who filed similar applications against her before trial courts hearing the riots cases and the same were dismissed.
“This is not prosecution, this is persecution,“ Sibal said, arguing that the affidavits of Rais Khan were of 2002-03. “Persons who complain of forgery should have come forward with a complaint. But here the state has come forward. This is malicious and motivated, because I did what I did in larger public interest,” Sibal said.
Sibal had also argued that the FIR was filed a day after the June 24 judgment by the Supreme Court dismissing a petition filed by riot victim Zakia Jafri seeking a probe into the larger conspiracy behind the riots. Setalvad had supported Jafri in making out a legal case.
The June 24 judgment said the petitioner had the “audacity” to question the integrity of SIT. “All those involved in such abuse of process, need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law.” The judgment was quoted in the FIR lodged by Gujarat police a day later.
The court did not enter into the rival contentions made by the two sides and restricted itself to Setalvad’s interim bail request. Setalvad in her petition filed through advocate Aparna Bhat said, “The petitioner strongly believes that she has been targeted by the state as she raised critical issues before this court challenging the administration.