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Judge quits after Mecca verdict; trouble not yet over for Swami Aseemanand

BS Web Team/New Delhi 16 Apr 18 | 09:45 PM

Special NIA judge Ravindra Reddy who delivered the Mecca Masjid case verdict

A special anti-terror court on Monday acquitted accused Swami Aseemanand and four others in the Mecca Masjid blast case, holding that the prosecution failed to prove "even a single allegation" against them. The Mecca Masjid attack was allegedly carried out by a group of right-wing terrorists 11 years ago on May 18, 2007. 

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Barely hours after pronouncing the judgement, in a dramatic development, K Ravinder Reddy, the special judge for NIA cases, tendered his resignation, citing "personal" reasons. Reddy said his resignation had nothing to do with today's judgement, according to a senior judicial officer.

"He has sent the resignation letter to MSJ...he has cited personal grounds and it has nothing to do with today's verdict in the Mecca Masjid blast case," the senior judicial officer told PTI, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Reddy, had apparently taken the decision to resign sometime back itself, the officer said.

The explosion ripped through the mosque on May 18, 2007. Two live improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were also recovered by police and defused. Later, five more people were killed in subsequent police firing on a crowd outside the mosque.

There were a total of eight accused in the case. One accused, Sunil Joshi, an RSS spokesperson, was murdered during the course of the investigation. Two other accused, Sandeep V Dange and Ramchandra Kalsangra, both RSS activists, still elude the investigators.

Apart from Aseemanand, those acquitted are — Devendra Gupta, Lokesh Sharma, Bharat Mohanlal Rateshwar alias Bharat Bhai and Rajendra Chowdhary.

According to Aseemanand's counsel Sharma, the court after examining documents and material placed on record found that the charges did not stick.

"This entire case was based on the confessional statement of Swami Aseemanand. Right from the beginning, we had been placing before the court that this is not the statement of confession.

"The defence argued that the so-called confessional statement was forced from Swami Aseemanand in order to create a theory of 'Bhagwa Atankwad' (saffron terror)," he said.

The court, Sharma said, held that the confessional statement of Aseemanand was not voluntary. "CBI had got the statement of Swami Aseemanand recorded in Delhi while he was in police custody during December 2010," he said.

Sharma claimed the investigating officer of the CBI had "intentionally" implicated the accused to sully the image of 'Sant Samaj' (the fraternity of seers) and the RSS, to which those acquitted belonged at some point of time.

He said nothing incriminating was recovered from any of the accused, and that there was no corroboration to the "confessional" statement of Aseemanand.

The media was not allowed in the courtroom where the judgement was pronounced in the high-profile case, which was dubbed by the then UPA government as one of "Hindu terror", a term that riled saffron organisations, including the BJP, no end.

Soon after the verdict, The NIA had come in for attack by Opposition parties, including the Congress and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM).

Here are the top 10 developments around the Mecca Masjid blast case verdict:

1) Judge who acquitted Mecca Masjid blast accused quitsHours after acquitting all five right-wing Hindu activists accused in the 2007 Mecca Masjid bomb blast case, special NIA court judge K Ravinder Reddy on Monday tendered his resignation.

Reddy, who is the fourth Metropolitan Sessions Judge, cited "personal reasons" in his resignation letter sent to the Chief Justice of the Hyderabad High Court, according to agency reports.

His move surprised legal and political circles as it came a few hours after he acquitted Swamy Aseemanand and four others in the sensational case for lack of evidence.

Click here to read the chronology of events in the Mecca Masjid Blast case

There was no information if his decision was linked to the verdict or some other issue.

Ravinder Reddy, who is President of the Telangana Judges Association, along with some other judges were suspended by the High Court in 2016 for protesting over the allocation of judges between Telangana and Andhra Pradesh and the demand for setting up a separate high court for Telangana.

2) Aseemanand still faces Samjhauta case trialSwami Aseemanand, acquitted by a NIA court on Monday in the 2007 Mecca Masjid blast case, now faces trial only in the 2007 Samjhauta Express train blast case since he was earlier acquitted in the Ajmer Dargah blast case of the same year.

File photo of Mecca Masjid blast accused Swami Aseemanand who was acquitted by a special NIA court in Hyderabad on Monday

A resident of Gujarat and head of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Aseemanand was formerly associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The septuagenarian is currently on bail in the case pertaining to the blast on the Samjhauta Express train near Panipat in Haryana.

ALSO READ: Swami Aseemanand: A science graduate who donned saffron

On February 18, 2007, a blast on the Samjhauta Express train between New Delhi and Lahore in Pakistan killed 68 people, most of them Pakistanis. The Punjab and Haryana High Court had granted bail to Aseemanand in the case in 2014.

Apart from these cases, Aseemanand's name also cropped up in the Malegaon blast cases of 2006 and 2008.

In 2010, Aseemanand had allegedly confessed that he and other right-wing activists were involved in bombings at places of worship across the country to take revenge against the "terror acts of Muslims".

He later retracted his statements, saying he was tortured and pressurised to give wrong statements.

Who is Swami Aseemanand? His real name is Naba Kumar Sarkar. Swami Aseemanand was arrested on November 19, 2010, from Haridwar in connection with the blast at the Mecca Masjid on May 18, 2007. On March 8, 2017, Aseemanand and six others were acquitted in the 2007 Ajmer blast case by a court in Jaipur. He was then brought from Jaipur and lodged in a prison in Hyderabad.   

Earlier associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he is considered an ideologue of Abhinav Bharat, an extremist organisation involved in Malegaon and Ajmer blasts.  

3) Rahul Gandhi ducks poser: Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Monday dodged a query on acquittal of the accused. Rahul Gandhi, who began this morning his three-day visit to his Lok Sabha constituency Amethi and to the neighbouring Rae Bareli represented by his mother Sonia Gandhi, refused to take the question on the Hyderabad court verdict while emerging out of a programme.

Asked by a reporter to comment on the verdict, Rahul ignored the poser and told his driver to move ahead.

4) All Mecca blast accused let off: All the accused in the Mecca Masjid blast case were acquitted by the Namapally Court on Monday. 

Police sounded an alert in Hyderabad following the judgement of the NIA court and beefed up the security in the communally sensitive old city. More than 3,000 policemen and personnel of paramilitary forces were deployed as part of the security arrangements.

Senior police officials were monitoring the security arrangements at the historic mosque located near the iconic Charminar.

Deputy Commissioner of Police V Satyanarayana said the police had taken all necessary measures to prevent any untoward incident.

He said the police would keep a close watch on the movement of people at sensitive places through CCTV cameras. He said the police would deal firmly with any attempt to disturb law and order.

5) Verdict exposed Congress' appeasement politics, says BJP: The BJP on Monday launched a sharp attack on the Congress after a court acquitted right-wing activist Swami Aseemanand and four others in the 2007 Mecca Masjid blast case, claiming that the opposition party's "appeasement politics" of "defaming" Hindus has been exposed.

Reacting to the court verdict, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra alleged that the Congress has long "defamed" Hindus for votes and demanded that party president Rahul Gandhi and his predecessor Sonia Gandhi apologise for terms such as "saffron terror" and "Hindu terror".

Patra said people will teach the Congress "a lesson" in the Karnataka Assembly polls as they had in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when it was reduced to 44 seats.

Hitting back at the Congress leaders for blaming the BJP government for the acquittal of the accused, he alleged that the opposition party has"double standards" and as it had welcomed a court order in favour of accused in the 2G scam case.

Patra also noted that the Congress was in power for seven years after the blasts and asked what it had done during the period.

Police personnel outside the Nampally Court during a hearing on the Mecca blast case, in Hyderabad on Monday

6) No justice in Mecca Masjid blast case, says OwaisiAll India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen Owaisi alleged on a micro-blogging site that most of the witnesses in the Mecca Masjid blast case had turned hostile after June 2014 and the NIA either didn't pursue the case as was expected from it or was not allowed by its political masters to do so.

Asserting that "justice hasn't been done in the case," Owaisi said that "questions would be raised over the criminal justice system (of the country) if such biased prosecutions continue."

The firebrand MP alleged that the Modi government did not even appeal against the bail given to the accused earlier.

7) Lt Col Purohit declared hostile witness in Mecca Masjid blast case: Lt Col Prasad Purohit, an accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case, on February 15, 2018, turned hostile while deposing in a Hyderabad court as a witness in the 2007 Mecca Masjid bomb blast case. Purohit had been listed as a witness by the CBI in the case related to the blast at the Mecca Masjid. The case was later taken over by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). 

8) Mecca Masjid blast case's brief chronology: The blast at the historic Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad on May 18, 2007, during Friday prayers had claimed nine lives and left 58 others injured. After initial investigation by local police, the case was transferred to the Central Bureau Of Investigation (CBI), which filed a charge sheet. Subsequently, the NIA took over the case from the CBI in 2011.  

9) Who were the accused in the case? Ten persons allegedly belonging to right-wing organisations were named as accused in the case. However, only five of them -- Devendra Gupta, Lokesh Sharma, Swami Aseemanand (alias Naba Kumar Sarkar), Bharat Mohanlal Rateshwar (alias Bharat Bhai), and Rajendra Chowdhary - were arrested and faced trial in the case. Two other accused -- Sandeep V Dange and Ramchandra Kalsangra -- are absconding, while another accused Sunil Joshi died. Investigations were continuing against two other accused.  

Before being acquitted, Swami Aseemanand and Bharat Mohanlal Rateshwar were out on bail, while three others were lodged in the central prison in Hyderabad under judicial remand.

In March 2017, a court in Rajasthan had sentenced Gupta and another convict to life in jail in the Ajmer Dargah blast case.

10) Nine people killed in Mecca Masjid blast; five more in police firing: While nine people were killed in the Mecca Masjid blast during Friday prayers on May 18, 2007, five more people were killed in police firing on protesters outside the mosque after the explosions.

RDX, TNT combination used in Mecca Masjid blast: T Suresh, chief scientific officer of the CLUES bomb detection squad of Andhra Pradesh, has said that in the Mecca Masjid blasts, "a combination of RDX and TNT was used". 

226 witnesses examined by court: During the Mecca Masjid blast trial, a total of 226 witnesses were examined and as many as 411 documents were exhibited.  With agency inputs

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