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Due process

Print edition : Aug 24, 2007 T+T-

Sanjay Dutt is sentenced to six years rigorous imprisonment for possessing illegal weapons.

in MumbaiActor Sanjay Dutt

SIX years rigorous imprisonment and Rs.25,000 fine bail bond stands cancelled take him into custody, ruled Judge P.D. Kode, of the specially designated Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) Court in Mumbai on July 31. All eyes in the courtroom turned to Hindi film actor Sanjay Dutt, who turned pale on hearing the sentence for a crime he had committed 14 years ago. Although Sanjay Dutt recovered his composure almost immediately, he sat through the proceedings looking extremely emotional. The actor, wearing several religious necklaces and clad in a white shirt and dark blue jeans, had an unusually dishevelled appearance on that day.

With the sentencing of Sanjay Dutt, Kode brought down the curtains on the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts case, which witnessed the countrys longest and, perhaps, the most historic trial. The court held 100 people guilty, gave life sentence to 20 persons and handed death sentence to 12 accused.

Sanjay Dutt was among the 138 people accused of participating in the March 12, 1993 bomb blasts, which killed 257 people and injured more than 1,400. Although the actor was acquitted of TADA charges when the Judge began delivering his verdict in August 2006, he was held guilty under the Indian Arms Act, 1959, for the possession of an AK-56 and an unlicensed .9mm pistol. The rifle was reportedly part of an arms consignment that was to be used for carrying out the blasts. The Mumbai terror attack, the first of its kind in the country, is believed to be a retaliatory action against the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, in which close to 900 Muslims were killed. Apparently funded by Muslim organisations from abroad, the attack was executed with the help of the Indian underworld.

Sanjay Dutt has always maintained that he had nothing to do with the conspiracy. He procured the weapons to protect his family as Hindu fundamentalists were threatening his father, the late Sunil Dutt, for helping Muslims affected during the 1992-93 Mumbai riots. Sunil Dutt was a Congress Member of Parliament at that time.

A week after he was sentenced, the actor, who is serving time in the Yerawada prison in Pune as he cannot be granted bail by the TADA court, has moved the Supreme Court for bail. Additionally, he has filed a petition in the apex court challenging his conviction by the TADA court saying that he was held guilty on a very weak piece of evidence. He says the TADA court erred in holding him guilty under the Arms Act as no arms and ammunition were recovered from his possession or from his residence at his instance.

He sought relief on the grounds that his conduct had been impeccable during the past 12 years. Since he did not breach any bail conditions in all these years, the court should have considered releasing him under the Probation of Offenders Act (POA), 1958, he pleaded. The POA allows the court to release a first-time offender or a person guilty of a lesser offence if it is satisfied that his conduct has been good and he can be reformed. Many observers believed Justice Kode would consider the POA for Sanjay Dutt. The Judge, however, declared that the actors actions in 1993 could not justify the application of POA.

The Central Bureau of Investigations stand would be crucial in Sanjay Dutts case in the Supreme Court. Should the CBI take a tough position, the actor could be in for a long and rough fight.

In the 45-minute build-up to the final verdict, Judge Kode took pains to explain why Sanjay Dutt, Accused Number 117, should be held culpable for an offence committed 14 years ago.

I cannot conclude that Accused Number 117 was in a position to commit a terrorist act but still considering the powers of such a weapon even assuming if its for self defence, it does not respect the provisions of the law, said Kode. Even for protecting father or family you can take lawful steps. But if you take unlawful steps, it cannot be considered noble, he said in response to Sanjay Dutts plea that the weapons were bought to protect his family.

In a hard-hitting judgment, Kode said not only did Sanjay Dutt commit a crime by acquiring an AK-56 rifle, but he induced others to commit a crime by convincing them to help him destroy the weapon. There is something lacking in his character to commit this crime. He said: The mere possession of such a weapon is a serious crime. Such a weapon is capable of causing mass destruction. It does not matter what the intent is. By no means is this offence a minor one.

After the Judge passed his order, Sanjay Dutt walked up to the witness box and said softly, Sir, I made a mistake 14 years ago. To this Justice Kode said: Everyone makes mistakes, but the element of criminality in you is incurable.

For years there were murmurs that Justice Kode was too lenient with the actor. His judgment finally belied the criticism. Yet, he seemed to have a soft side after all. Later that day, the Judge summoned Sanjay Dutt back to the courtroom. Without his robes on, he gently told the actor: You should not be perturbed. You are number one in your field today and must keep the faith in yourself. You made a mistake and have paid for it. I have only done my duty. You have the option of going to the Supreme Court and there will be lawyers to defend you. Act till you are 100. I have taken away only six years.

In a police

The verdict against Sanjay Dutt evoked mixed reaction. While family, friends, the film industry and fans naturally felt the judgment was too harsh, the legal fraternity and several observers of the case say that the Judge was fair. Many sympathise with Sanjay Dutt saying he has had a rough ride all through his life. His drug and alcoholic problems were well known at the time of the crime. Perhaps he was just a misguided youngster who did not realise the enormity of possessing an automatic weapon that could cause large-scale destruction. However, several people believe that Sanjay Dutt was a typically rich, brash youngster, and wanted a fancy gun just the way he owned other firearms.

Sanjay Dutt owned three licensed guns at that time. How a 34-year-old man could not know the grim consequences of a civilian owning such a weapon, they argue. Did he think his celebrity status and familys influential position gave him the right to be above the law?

Former Attorney-General of India Soli Sorabji went on record after the sentencing saying, he didnt have a toy gun he didnt have an air gun this is a serious offence. He pointed out if the Judge had given less than five years for this crime he would have committed an illegality.

Public Prosecutor Ujwal Nikam, understandably, was pleased with the verdict. He told mediapersons that he thought the Judge might show leniency under the POA. If that had happened, he said, it would have been unfair to others who had been sentenced for lesser charges. It would have also created the impression that the judiciary is lenient towards celebrities. But the law treated Sanjay Dutt equally.

There is speculation that the CBI may come under some pressure from the Congress government to go easy on the actor. The actors sister and MP, Priya Dutt, has met Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, who has apparently given the family her support. Congressmen, such as Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi and Kapil Sibal, have been speaking in Sanjay Dutts favour.

Similarly, several film stars and celebrities have been talking to the media about a campaign to Save Sanjay. Nikam is furious. He said if someone started such a campaign it would amount to contempt of court. I am watching this carefully, and if it continues, I will be forced to take legal action, he stated. The threat worked; overnight the comments and opinions of celebrities stopped.

Sanjay Dutt got linked to the serial bombing case when, a month after the blasts, investigators discovered that the actor had bought an AK-56 rifle that was reportedly a part of a consignment meant to be used in the blasts. On arresting some of his associates, it was found that Sanjay Dutt had been in touch with underworld dons Abu Salem and Anees Ibrahim (Dawood Ibrahims brother) with regard to the purchase of weapons. Investigators also found two magazines with 250 rounds of ammunition and a pistol in Sanjay Dutts house.

It is believed that it was Mumbai ganglord Dawood Ibrahim, who is in exile either in Dubai or Pakistan, who orchestrated the terror attack. He used his trusted underworld friend Tiger Memon to execute the attack.

Although there was evidence linking the actor to Dawood Ibrahim, his brother Anees Ibrahim and other mafiosi such as Iqbal Mirchi, Sharad Shetty and Chota Shakeel, Sanjay Dutt has insisted he had nothing to do with the blast conspiracy.

I realised keeping such a weapon was wrong, he told the police, according to the charge sheet. He said he had repeatedly asked his friends Samir Hingora and Hanif Kadawala, who were film producers and who had introduced him to Salem, to take back the weapon. They kept dodging him. When the news of the AK-56 in his possession became public and the police began to suspect his involvement in the blasts, Sanjay Dutt panicked and asked his friend Yusuf Nulwala to destroy the rifle.

According to the charge sheet, Yusuf Nulwala then contacted Kersi Adajenia who owned a steel fabrication business. They attempted to melt the rifle but were unsuccessful. Sanjay Dutt also wanted to get rid of the unlicensed .9mm pistol. Adajenia had postponed melting it as he had to leave for Kolkata the next day. He gave the pistol to a friend Russi Mulla, who in turn gave it to one of Sanjay Dutts friends Ajay Marwah.

Justice Kode, acquitted Marwah in August last year. On July 31, Nulwala was sentenced to five years rigorous imprisonment, 77-year-old Adejania was given two years with bail and Mulla was released under the POA as it was proved that he had no knowledge of the history of the weapon.

This is Sanjay Dutts second time in jail. He was arrested on April 19, 1993, and spent 16 months at the Arthur Road jail in Mumbai. His career took a beating in the wake of the arrest. The actor made a comeback recently with the success of Munnabhai MBBS and its sequel, Lage Raho Munnabhai. A third part, Munnabhai Chale America, is in the pipeline. Sources say that close to Rs.100 crore are riding on the actor. But there is little the industry can do until the apex court decides his fate.