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'What Is the Alarming Urgency?': SC Grants Teesta Setalvad Interim Relief

'Will the skies fall if interim protection is granted for some days? We are taken by surprise by what the [Gujarat] high court has done,' the Supreme Court said.

New Delhi: In a late night sitting on July 1, the Supreme Court granted interim relief to Teesta Setalvad who had been asked to “surrender immediately” by the Gujarat high court, in connection with the 2002 Gujarat riots case.

On June 30, Justice Nirzar Desai of the high court turned down the activist’s bail plea and also the request made by her lawyer, Mihir Thakore, to stay the operation of the judgement for 30 days to allow them to move the Supreme Court.

An earlier interim bail granted to her by the Supreme Court in September 2022 had protected her from arrest thus far.

Last night the Supreme Court acknowledged this earlier order as it stayed the high court’s dismissal of her bail application. The bench, comprising Justices B.R. Gavai, A.S. Bopanna, and Dipankar Dutta, noted that then CJI Justice U.U. Lalit’s order had noted that Setalvad was a a woman and entitled to special protection under Section 437 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, LiveLaw has reported.

Granting a weeklong stay on the single bench’s order, the apex court noted that the Gujarat HC should have “granted some protection to the petitioner so that she can challenge the order before the Supreme Court.”

In the hearing, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said he would expect the judges “to do the same thing which will be done in the case of a common man who has been rejected bail since she is a common criminal.”

The bench questioned the high court on the urgency displayed by it in asking Setalvad to immediately surrender even though she was on bail for the last 10 months.

“What is the urgency in taking her into custody? Will the skies fall if interim protection is granted for some days? We are taken by surprise by what the high court has done. What is the alarming urgency?…Even common criminals are granted interim relief,” Justice Gavai said, according to LiveLaw.

The apex court also noted that it was not concerned with the merits of the matter.

Earlier on July 1, a smaller Supreme Court division bench of Justices Abhay S. Oka and Prashant Kumar Mishra differed on Setalvad’s appeal against the HC declining her regular bail. LiveLaw reported that while Justice Oka was in favour of granting interim protection to Setalvad, Justice Mishra disagreed. The matter was then placed before the CJI to assign before a larger bench.

Last year, Setalvad was arrested from her Mumbai home by the Gujarat Anti-Terror Squad soon after the Supreme Court’s controversial judgment in the Zakia Jafri case and booked under various Indian Penal Code sections relevant to forgery and false evidence. Jafri and Setalvad’s appeal had centred around the closure report of the special investigation team which probed the murder of Jafri’s husband, Ehsan, in the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

The SC not only disposed the appeal, but claimed that Setalvad was among “those who had kept the pot boiling” with an “ulterior motive” for the past 16 years. It added that she should be in the dock and be “proceeded with in accordance with the law”.

Setalvad spent around 70 days in jail on the basis of these observations, on which former SC judge Justice Madan B. Lokur noted on The Wire that the “implications were horrendous.”

A vocal critic of Modi and an activist whose work centres around justice for 2002 riots victims, in late May, Setalvad was honoured with an empty chair at the 55th International Writers for Peace Committee Meeting in Slovenia.