The Supreme Court on Thursday directed human rights activist Gautam Navlakha to be shifted from Taloja Central Jail to a one-bedroom flat at Belapur in Navi Mumbai where he will remain in house arrest for a month under strict police supervision and with a string of conditions attached. Navlakha has been in jail since April 2020 after his arrest in the Bhima Koregaon case.

The order was passed on an “experimental basis” by a bench of justices KM Joseph and Hrishikesh Roy which admitted that this “is not done in the ordinary course”. “Let us try out for one month. It is the first time we are doing it.”

Considering his advanced age and health ailments, the court permitted Navlakha to live with his 71-year-old partner but with no access to a phone, smart television, internet or any communication device. The bench also took into account the fact that Navlakha has no criminal antecedents and that there has been a delay in his trial with charges yet to be framed after the charge sheet was filed in 2020.

The Belapur flat was arranged at the last minute as the court did not permit Navlakha to stay at his Delhi residence where he was under house arrest before he was moved to jail in 2020. He was initially arrested in August 2018 by Maharashtra Police and later in April 2020 after the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over the case.

NIA and the state government were provided 48 hours to screen the premises for the presence of any electronic gadgets, phones or communication equipment in the Belapur residence.

Before moving in, the court directed Navlakha to furnish two local sureties of 2 lakh each and make an upfront deposit of 2.4 lakh to the Maharashtra government to cover the cost of security personnel.

Navlakha, 70, is an accused under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, or UAPA, for his alleged role in the Bhima Koregaon violence that took place on January 1, 2018. NIA, which is probing the case, has accused him and 15 others for having links with banned Naxal organisation – Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Navlakha is among the activists, lawyers, poets and scholars arrested by NIA in connection with alleged inflammatory speeches made at the Elgar Parishad conclave held in Pune on December 31, 2017. This, the police claimed, triggered violence the next day near the Koregaon-Bhima war memorial located on the outskirts of the western Maharashtra city, leading to death of one person and injuries to several others.

Navlakha was in house arrest for a period of 34 days, beginning August 28, 2018. On October 10, 2018, the Delhi high court set aside the order of the magistrate placing him under house arrest as illegal. During the period of house arrest, he was not allowed to meet anybody and even NIA did not have access to him. After NIA took over the probe from Maharashtra police in January 2020, he was taken into police custody on April 14, 2020 and remained in the custody of NIA till April 25, 2020. Following this, he was shifted to the jail.

Navlakha was examined by a team of doctors last month who advised him use of bed and mattress due to age-related deterioration in his spine, cervical spondylitis and high blood pressure. His plea for house arrest was turned down by the Bombay high court on April 26 .

Applying the Jail Manual, the top court allowed Navlakha to use the phone of the security personnel posted outside the house to talk for 10 minutes in the presence of police staff. His partner was allowed to use a basic mobile device which is not internet-enabled and can be used to make calls and send messages only. While placing the conditions, the bench said it was tasked with a sensitive duty to balance the right of privacy of Navlakha’s partner with national security concerns. The bench said: “This is not a case of an ordinary crime. We cannot say this is not a serious crime. That’s a fact we have to face.”

Additional solicitor general SV Raju appearing for NIA initially objected to her presence in the flat, saying: “In jails, females and males are not allowed to mingle.” But the court referred to the concept of open jails abroad where such a facility is provided. A dispute arose over installation of CCTV cameras too. NIA insisted on placing it inside the room.

However, Navlakha’s legal team led by senior advocate Kapil Sibal, opposed this, claiming invasion of privacy, especially because of the presence of the partner. The bench finally permitted CCTVs to be placed at the entrance and exit of the house and directed Navlakha to ensure their upkeep.

By Shadab

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