Supreme Court cancels bail granted to 8 PFI members

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Top Court has said High Court should not have taken a lenient view, more particularly when there was sufficient material to show the prima facie involvement of the accused in the alleged offences under the UAPA

The Supreme Court has on May 22, 2024 cancelled the bail granted to eight members of suspected banned outfit Popular Front of India accused of radicalising the youth to commit terrorist acts and make the country an Islamic State by 2047 through armed struggle.

A bench of Justices Bela M Trivedi and Pankaj Mithal has observed that court has often interpreted the counter terrorism enactments to strike a balance between the civil liberties of the accused, human rights of the victims and compelling interest of the state. 

However, "It cannot be denied that national security is always of paramount importance and any act in aid to any terrorist act – violent or non-violent is liable to be restricted. The UAPA is one of such Acts which has been enacted to provide for effective prevention of certain unlawful activities of individuals and associations, and to deal with terrorist activities, as also to impose reasonable restrictions on the civil liberties of the persons in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India," the bench added.

It opined that having regard to the gravity of offence and that they have spent just close to one-and-half years in incarceration, against the backdrop of maximum punishment, it was inclined to interfere with the high court order granting bail.

"We are satisfied from the charge sheet as also the other material/documents relied upon by the appellant that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the accusations against the respondents are prima facie true and that the mandate contained in the proviso to Section 43(D)(5) would be applicable for not releasing the respondents on bail," it said.

Having regard to the seriousness and gravity of the alleged offences, previous criminal history of the respondents as mentioned in the charge sheet, the period of custody undergone by the respondents being hardly one and half years, the severity of punishment prescribed for the alleged offences and prima facie material collected during the course of investigation, the impugned order passed by the High Court cannot be sustained, the bench said.

The court accordingly allowed an appeal filed by the National Investigation Agency against the Madras High Court's order of October, 2023 pointing out that the courts can interfere with orders granting personal liberty if the same is perverse.

NIA challenged the correctness of the Madras High Court, granting bail to Barakathullah, Idris, Mohd Tahir, Khalid Mohammad, Syed Khaja, Mohinudeen, Yasar Arafat and Fayaz Ahmed. 

An FIR was registered on September 19, 2022 against the respondents and other members and office bearers of PFI for the offences under Section 120(b), 153(A), 153(AA) of IPC and Section 13, 17, 18, 18(B), 38 and 39 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1957.

All the accused were arrested on September 22, 2022 and a charge sheet came to be filed on March 17, 2023.

The NIA contended the High Court has committed grave error in trivialising the serious allegations made against the respondents by holding that except the witnesses having stated about respondents organising weapon training for using knives and swords and to train members to throw beer bottles filled with water on targets, there is no material to suggest commission of any offence which falls under Section 15 of UAPA, whereas all these alleged acts were part of the preparation of committing terrorist acts, particularly when the respondents were imparting training as to how to hurl bombs by using water filled beer bottles and how to use weapons like knives and swords to strike terror in the mind of people. 

It also contended the High Court had failed to appreciate that the oral statements of the witnesses and the recoveries made during the course of investigation clearly made out a prima facie case against the respondents regarding their involvement of the alleged offences.

On the contrary, the respondents emphatically submitted that the reliance of the appellant on the statements made by the protected/listed witnesses was highly improper as the said witnesses themselves had participated in the alleged commission of offences. According to them, the vague allegations made by the said witnesses, could not be relied upon, more particularly when there was no material brought on record to show any preparatory work done.

The court noted from the statements of witnesses and the incriminating documents collected during the course of investigation, as referred to in the charge sheet, it is discernible that the witnesses have stated about the activities of PFI like radicalising youth for recruitment, Arms training (knife, sword and use of petrol bombs/inflammable substances) and preparatory act for commissioning of terrorist activities. Similarly, the other witness has stated about the PFI’s ideal of an Islamic State and about providing support to ISIS. The witnesses have also stated about the conspiracy hatched by the members of the PFI and particularly the role of A-8 Yasar Arafat for creating an Islamic State by the year 2047 through an armed struggle against the Government of India. 

The bench also pointed out the question of discarding the material or document at the stage of considering the bail application of an accused, on the ground of being not reliable or inadmissible in evidence, is not permissible. 

The court must look at the contents of the documents and take such documents into account as it is and satisfy itself on the basis of broad probabilities regarding the involvement of the accused in the commission of the alleged offences for recording whether a prima facie case is made out against the accused, the bench added.

"Considering the nature and gravity of the alleged offences and considering their criminal antecedents, in our opinion High Court should not have taken a lenient view, more particularly when there was sufficient material to show their prima facie involvement in the alleged offences under the UAPA," the bench said.

Setting aside the HC's order, the court directed all the respondents to forthwith surrender before the NIA and told the Special Court to proceed with the trial as expeditiously as possible.