Mumbai: A special court on Tuesday framed charges in the 2008 Malegaon blast case against Lt Col Prasad Purohit, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and five others for terror activities, criminal conspiracy and murder, among others.
The September 29, 2008 blast near Bhiku Chowk had killed six persons and injured 101.
Judge Vinod Padalkar, presiding over the special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court, framed charges against all the seven accused under sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Indian Penal Code (IPC). He rejected the plea made by Purohit – an army officer who was reinstated last year after spending almost nine years in jail – seeking time to delay framing charges until he could move the Supreme Court to challenge the validity of invoking UAPA.
After the charges were framed, the court posted the trial to commence on November 2.
Apart from Pragya Thakur and Purohit, the five other accused – Major (retired) Ramesh Upadhyay, Sameer Kulkarni, Ajai Rahirkar, Sudhakar Dwivedi and Sudhakar Chaturvedi – were also present in the court. They pleaded not guilty. Sadhvi Pragya, who was lodged in a jail in Madhya Pradesh before being granted bail last year, was present before the Mumbai court in a wheelchair.
The accused were charged under sections 16 (committing terrorist act) and 18 (conspiring to commit terrorist act) of the UAPA. Under the IPC, they were charged under sections 120 (b) (criminal conspiracy), 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 324 (voluntarily causing hurt) and 153 (a) (promoting enmity between two religious groups).
If convicted under some of the sections, the death penalty could be ordered.
The accused were also charged under relevant sections of the Explosive Substances Act.
The judge, while reading out the charges against the accused persons said, “The Abhinav Bharat organisation was formed with the common object to spread terrorism and a bomb with RDX was planted on a motorcycle in Malegaon that killed six persons and injured 101 others.”
“The accused persons came together to hatch a conspiracy to commit a terrorist act and procured explosives to further their conspiracy,” Padalkar said.
The prosecution had also claimed that the right-wing group Abhinav Bharat was formed by the accused and held meetings at various places in the country, hatching conspiracy and terror plots.
Purohit told the court, “No one can doubt my honesty, integrity and service record.”
Thakur, after the court proceedings, told reporters that the investigating agency had given her a “clean chit” in the case.
“Despite that, charges have been framed against me. My struggle against this will continue. I will eventually win because I am right,” she said. She called the charges a “Congress conspiracy”.
Pleas dismissed last year
On December 27 last year, the special NIA court had dismissed pleas filed by Purohit, Thakur and others seeking to be discharged from the case.
The NIA, after taking over the case, had filed a charge sheet in 2016, giving a clean chit to Thakur and three others: Shyam Sahu, Praveen Takalki and Shivnarayan Kalsangra, saying it found no evidence against them and they should be discharged from the case.
The NIA court had, however, absolved only Sahu, Kalsangra and Takalki, and said Thakur will have to face charges.
At that time, the special court had dropped stringent charges under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) against the accused, but had said they will face charges under the UAPA and other sections of the IPC, including murder and criminal conspiracy.
The accused had later challenged the validity of the UAPA against them.
Earlier this month, the special court had rejected their pleas challenging the applicability of the UAPA against them.
Purohit had last week approached the Bombay high court challenging the lower court order and sought a stay on the framing of charges till his appeal is heard and decided.
On Monday, the high court refused to stay the framing of charges, posting the petition for hearing on November 21 and sought the NIA’s response.
Purohit had argued through his counsel Shrikant Shivade that he cannot be prosecuted in the case since the sanction granted by the government to prosecute him was “wrong in law”.
A prior government sanction for Purohit’s prosecution was required since he was a serving Army officer at the time of his arrest. The sanction was issued by the additional chief secretary of the Maharashtra home department on January 17, 2009.
Shivade claimed that under the UAPA, the state law and judiciary department, which is the sanctioning authority, has to constitute an appropriate authority and seek its report first.
In his case, the sanction was given in January 2009, but the authority was appointed only in October 2010, he has argued.
The sanction in Purohit’s case thus, was not valid under the UAPA, Shivade has maintained.
Vishal Upadhyay, son of Major (retd) Upadhyay told the Indian Express that the family has various documents obtained from the army and under the Right to Information Act that will be the part of their defence. “Also, some of the witnesses have retracted their statements, which has strengthened our case,” he said.
(With PTI inputs)