YET another episode relating to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) spy drama came to an end in the Kerala High Court on March 23 when the court quashed a defamation case filed against Frontline's Editor N. Ram, Printer and Publisher S. Rangarajan and Special Correspondent T.S. Subramanian for a critical article published in the magazine in 1996, on the handling of the ISRO espionage case by the Kerala Police, the Intelligence Bureau and the local media, especially as it was described l ater in the Central Bureau of Investigation's conclusive inquiry report.
The article titled "A witch hunt ends" was published in Frontline in May 1996, soon after the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Ernakulam had ordered the discharge of all the accused in the ISRO spy case. This followed the CBI's 'refer/closure report' filed before the CJM stating that the allegations of espionage against the accused were "baseless and untrue".
Following the publication of the article, Sibi Mathew, a senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer who headed the Kerala Police's Special Investigation Team (which conducted the controversial initial inquiry in the spy case), filed a complaint before th e Judicial First Class Magistrate, Thiruvananthapuram, stating that it contained "scandalous imputations which harmed the reputation of the Kerala Police before the eye of the public", "lowered its dignity" and affected its "morale" and therefore sought remedy for defamation.
On March 23, while quashing this complaint, based on petitions filed subsequently by Ram, Rangarajan and Subramanian, Justice S. Marimuthu of the Kerala High Court said that the words or the passages found in the article would not constitute offences pun ishable under Sections 500 (punishment for defamation), 501 (printing or engraving matter known to be defamatory) and 502 (sale of printed or engraved substance containing defamatory matter) read with Section 34 (criminal act done by several persons in f urtherance of a common intention) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
The petitioners had argued that the words found in the article were "not at all defamatory or scandalous", that they would "never injure the nobleness and the image of the Kerala police force or any individual member of it" and that it was in fact "the v erbatim reproduction of the conclusions of the CBI found in their report." They had also said that the article made only "fair comment and criticism" and that "they have been made in good faith and in the interest of the public".
The court said that it had come to the conclusion that "there is no case against the petitioners under the above Sections of the IPC to be proceeded further", after comparing the statements found in the report of the CBI and the words in the Frontline article which Sibi Mathew had alleged were defamatory in nature, and from the order of the CJM, Ernakulam, discharging the accused in the spy case and his discussion thereon, read along with the principles laid down by various courts while interpret ing the laws regarding defamation and power of quashing a criminal proceeding.
"The complaint on the face of it does not make out a prima facie case against the petitioners and therefore I am of the view that this is a fit case wherein this court can exercise its authority under Section 482 of the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr .P.C.) for quashing the complaint," the judge said in conclusion.
Significantly, the ISRO spy case did not end with the CJM's (Ernakulam) order. It came to a conclusion only two years later, on April 29, 1998, with the Supreme Court vindicating the six accused and other suspects, and reprimanding the Kerala Government for ordering yet another investigation by the State Police, even after the CBI inquiry had found the allegations of espionage false and the CJM court had ordered the release of all the accused. In fact, Kerala Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar later said that there could be mistakes in decisions taken in good faith (as he described the one to conduct a further investigation) and the courts had every right to correct such mistakes. Yet, the defamation case against Frontline dragged on for two more year s.
Senior advocate M. Ratna Singh appeared for the petitioners, and advocates T.G. Rajendran and Anil Thomas appeared along with him.R. Krishnakumar