The Bombay High Court has just commuted Mirza Himayat Baig’s death sentence to life. Himayat Baig was arrested for his role in the German Bakery bomb blast case in Pune’s upmarket Koregaon Park in 2010. The resulting explosion killed 17 people and left 58 wounded. Many of them were foreigners.
Baig was later arrested by the Pune Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) which recovered 1.1 kg of RDX from his residence. Another accused, Qateel Siddiqui had been arrested but was killed in a scuffle with other inmates, in Pune’s Yerawada Jail. Six other accused – Yasin Bhatkal, Riyaz Bhatkal, Iqbal Ismail Bhatkal, Sayyad Zabiuddin Ansari, Mohsin Choudhary and Fayyaz Kagzi, are still at large.
Another instance of inept prosecution?
The prosecution was surprised that it failed to convince the Division Bench comprising Justices SB Shukre and Naresh Patil, beyond reasonable doubt, for a ‘guilty’ verdict, under respective sections that it built the case against Baig. The Bench announced the operative part of its ruling, with the full text of the judgement to be released later.
Baig was acquitted of various charges under separate sections of the Unlawful Activities of (Prevention) Act 1967 (UAPA) and under IPC which included – Section 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 120(B) (criminal conspiracy).
He was, however, convicted under Explosive Substance Act – Section 5(b), for possession of explosives. The Bombay High Court upheld the Trial court’s life sentence.
The High Court also upheld Baig’s earlier conviction under Section 474, 464 (forgery), 467 (forgery of valuable security), and 468 (forgery for purpose of cheating) – for submitting forged documents in order to procure SIM cards. The Trial court had awarded him 7 years under this section.
So, what made the Judge commute the death sentence awarded by the Trial court to life? Was it shoddy investigation or failure on part of the prosecution to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt or was the Defence smart enough to exploit the weak investigation to its advantage?
The answer probably lies in a bit of all.
Contrasting approaches of the Defence and Prosecution
The prosecution was led by Special Public Prosecutor Thakare, who built his case on strong circumstantial evidence of explosives and forgery, proving beyond doubt that the accused was guilty of being directly involved in the blast and that he be awarded the death sentence.
The Defence, led by Mehmood Pracha and Tahiwar Pathan, built their case around Baig not being present in Pune on the day and therefore, there was no case beyond doubt to link him directly to the blast at the German Bakery.
The Defence also argued that Baig was away attending a wedding at Latur in Maharashtra on that fateful day and that it was Qateel Siddiqui (now deceased) and not Baig, who accompanied Yasin Bhatkal to Pune to plant the bomb.
He further argued that the prosecution had failed to present the detailed CFSL report from both government labs where the RDX samples were sent. He claimed that the report only mentioned the presence of RDX, oil and charcoal in the samples collected from the blast site but did not confirm the percentage of RDX to prove it was of explosive level.
Furthermore, the defence faulted the three video recordings presented by the prosecution that captured the event from outside the Bakery, which only showed one person, apparently Yasin Bhatkal, entering the Bakery with a bag and subsequently leaving without it. He claimed that there was no video graphic proof of Baig being present at the site or in the vicinity.
The defence lawyers tried to argue that Baig did not live in the house from where the explosives were recovered but stayed in a house nearby. They also questioned the two ‘witnesses’ presented by the prosecutors saying their statements were collected under ‘duress’.
The High Court Bench in Mumbai said the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Baig was directly involved in the blast and therefore, commuted the death sentence to life. The Bench did however accept the case, for possession of explosives and forgery to acquire SIM cards, against Baig.
The case now seems set to go to the Supreme Court.
Problem of weak prosecution remains
In case after case, it is seen that the state prosecutor fails to prove his case beyond doubt and win a conviction as desired. One saw this during the Talwar case and in many other cases, where prosecution has been able to successfully convince the judge, leading to a poor conviction rate.
The issue here is not whether Baig deserves the death penalty or not, but the prosecution’s failure to present a strong enough case, if it is indeed believed that he was directly involved and deserved the death penalty.
The defence has already demonstrated the weakness in prosecution’s case and the fact that the High Court bench acquitted the accused on more serious charges of murder and attempt to murder, only highlights the challenges ahead, when the case goes up for appeal to the Supreme Court.