Justice for the RTI activist Jethava

Print edition : December 06, 2019

Amit Jethava, in an undated photograph. Photo: Jignesh Jethva

Dinu Bogha Solanki (centre) being taken to a court at Saket in New Delhi after the CBI arrested him on November 6, 2013. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Dinu Solanki on stage with Chief Minister Vijay Rupani at a Gujarat Gaurav Yatra event in 2017. Photo: By Special Arrangement.

A powerful BJP Member of Parliament is convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his involvement in the killing of the RTI activist Amit Jethava.

Amit Jethava was not a well-known name outside the small circle of people that comprise environmental journalists and conservationists. But on July 20, 2010, when he was shot dead outside the High Court of Gujarat in Ahmedabad, his murder became national news. It was reported as the murder of a man who was a Right to Information (RTI) activist, a lawyer and an environmentalist. The needle of suspicion pointed to a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament named Dinu Bogha Solanki.

The case made waves for many reasons. Firstly, Solanki is politically well connected in his home turf of Gir-Somnath and Junagadh districts and at the Centre. Secondly, in “business-friendly Gujarat”, issues like the environment and people like Jethava who take up public issues and file RTI applications are essentially seen as hurdles. And thirdly, the case marked a first in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence because it was the first time that a retrial (albeit a partial one) was decreed before a judgment was delivered by the trial court.

Solanki had huge business interests in fields as diverse as mining and petroleum to real estate and ice factories. Jethava had filed a public interest litigation petition against Solanki for mining within the five kilometre radius of the boundary of the Gir Sanctuary. In the petition, he had pleaded for protection of the environment, specifically the biodiversity of the Gir Forest. If the court had granted Jethava’s petition, it would have been a blow to Solanki’s business interests.

Legal battle

After Jethava’s murder, a case was registered with the Sola police station. Despite Solanki having been named categorically in the statement given by Jethava’s father, Jethava’s wife, his two brothers and six members of the Gir Nature Club complaining that Jethava had been receiving threats, no investigation was carried out with regard to Solank’s role in it. The investigation was generally considered to be lackadaisical and perfunctory, and hence Jethava’s father approached the High Court of Gujarat praying for transfer of the investigation from the State police to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The court transferred the case to the CBI, charge sheets were filed and the CBI arrested Solanki. He challenged in the Supreme Court the High Court judgment transferring the case.

The Supreme Court upheld the judgment and directed the trial to be conducted on a day-to-day basis, but at the same time granted Solanki bail. Jethava’s father filed an application seeking cancellation of the bail on the grounds that Solanki was threatening the complainant, his family and witnesses.

During the trial, most of the witnesses turned hostile. Jethava’s father approached the High Court seeking a retrial. Out of 195 prosecution witnesses examined, 105, including eight eyewitnesses, 26 panch witnesses and the majority of the witnesses coming from Saurashtra, turned hostile. Anandvardhan Yagnik, the advocate fighting the case, said: “Witnesses are the eyes of truth, and if they turn hostile, it is the accused who decides the outcome of the trial. This would be a travesty of justice.”

The apex court took note of this, saying that “it does not need much effort to fathom... the reasons... for” so many witnesses turning hostile. It also said: “However, when the aforesaid facts are considered cumulatively, it compels us to take a view that in the interest of fair trial, at least crucial witnesses need to be examined again.”

The apex court, therefore, directed that 26 important witnesses should be examined de novo and further held that “in order to ensure that there is a fair trial in literal sense of the term, at least till the time eight eyewitnesses are re-examined, Mr Solanki should remain in confinement and he be released thereafter with certain conditions, pending remaining trial”. Solanki was taken into custody only to be released after eight crucial witnesses were re-examined. And even after his release, he was ordered not to enter Gujarat until the remaining witnesses’ statements were recorded.

Justices A.K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan of the Supreme Court said on October 2017: “The High Court found that all the important witnesses including the eyewitnesses resiled from their statements made before the police. On that basis, it was contended by the complainant before the High Court that it was a case where the main accused (Mr Solanki) who is a former Member of Parliament had won over all the witnesses including the eyewitnesses by his sheer power and position. Therefore, according to him, it was a fit case for directing retrial by the High Court in exercise of its extraordinary powers under Article 226 of the Constitution of India or the supervisory jurisdiction under Article 227 of the Constitution of India.”

In fact, Justice J.B. Pardiwala of the High Court of Gujarat, who directed the retrial, observed: “I have reached to the conclusion without any hesitation that retrial is the only solution to prevent the miscarriage of justice.”

This strong stand of the High Court is what put the case back on track. After the retrial commenced in November 2017, all the witnesses to be examined de novo were provided police protection. Despite this, one of the witnesses, Bhagwandas Himmatlal Dhakan, told the CBI judge that to prevent him from deposing in a free and fair manner his son had been kidnapped and later released before his scheduled deposition before the court. The court initiated an inquiry into the matter, but the witness changed his stance out of fear.

Key conspirator

After an intense nine-year legal battle, the case was brought to a close on July 6, 2019, when the Special CBI judge K.M. Dave convicted Solanki, who had been charge-sheeted as the key conspirator in the killing, and the six other accused: Pratap alias Shiva Solanki, Bahadursinh Vadher, Pachanbhai Desai, Sanjay Parbatbhai Chauhan, Udaji Kanaji Thakor and Shailesh Nanlal Pandya. They were sentenced to life imprisonment. None of the accused has yet preferred an appeal to the Gujarat High Court. The cycle of vengeance that started with the murder of Jethava has not ended with the conviction and sentencing of Solanki and the other accused.

Given the high-profile, politically charged nature of the case, there is a high threat perception for Anandvardhan Yagnik. He and his family members have been subjected to threats in the past “several times directly and indirectly, over the phone and in person, by and on behalf of accused persons”. He believes that “unknown persons have been keeping a watch” on him and his family and that the “threat perception has [increased] manifold… pursuant to the conviction”.

For the first few months after the judgment, Yagnik was given security cover in the form of an armed guard. This has since been withdrawn. The CBI court that had directed the state to provide him with security cover had said that it could only be withdrawn after a threat assessment was done. Yagnik says that no assessment was done before the security was withdrawn for him and his family. Viewed in the light of the alleged road accident that befell the victim, her relatives and her lawyer in the Unnao rape case, new threats seem to have opened up against those who stand up for justice.

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