Gautam Navlakha allowed to be placed under house arrest on medical grounds

The court directed authorities to carry out the necessary evaluation of the premises where Navlakha will be placed under house arrest, and shift him within a period of 48 hours

Civil rights activist Gautam Navlakha (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)
Civil rights activist Gautam Navlakha (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Ashlin Mathew

The Supreme Court permitted civil liberties defender 70-year-old Gautam Navlakha, who has been accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case, to be placed under house arrest for one month subject to him depositing Rs 2.4 lakh, the estimated amount which is being claimed as the expense for making the police personnel available.

A bench of Justices KM Joseph and Hrishikesh Roy were hearing the case. The bench observed that he has been in custody since 2020. “He was placed in house arrest on an earlier occasion and prima facie, no complaint that he misused earlier house arrest. He has no criminal antecedents apart from this case against him. We would think that we should allow house arrest, at least, to begin with, for a period of one month,” said the bench.

The court directed authorities to carry out the necessary evaluation of the premises where Navlakha will be placed under house arrest, and shift him within a period of 48 hours. Navlakha had requested to be transferred to his sister's house in Mumbai. However, during the hearing, it was submitted that he would reside with his 71-year-old companion in a 1BHK, above a public library.

The 70-year-old Navlakha stated that he is suffering from skin allergy and dental issues, and that he wanted to undergo a colonoscopy for suspected cancer.  He cited his ill health and poor facilities at the Taloja Jail in Navi Mumbai, where he is lodged, as reasons for his demand.

“We consider it appropriate to grant house arrest given his age. Still further, our attention is drawn to the multiple medical problems the petitioner is faced with, and that charges have not been framed in a trial that will not happen in the foreseeable future,” observed the bench.

The NIA had stated that Navlakha would have to pay for the security. Navlakha’s counsel, Kapil Sibal however, questioned why a 70-year-old man without income should be made to pay for it. NIA responded that he had stayed in Jaslok hospital, which was “very expensive”.

During the proceedings, the NIA cast doubts over Navlakha’s medical report by a private hospital because one of the 12 doctors who examined him was related to him. The probe agency sought an independent medical report before deciding his plea for house arrest.

While listing the matter for the second week of December, the court asked NIA to furnish another medical report from KEM Hospital before the hearing.

Indian Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) founder and Supreme Court lawyer Anas Tanwir pointed out that while the SC order granting house arrest to Gautam Navalakha in the case is to be welcomed, the condition that the expense of surveillance will be borne by Navlakha is rather unfair as it is the duty of the state to protect such accused persons.

“Once the court decides that a person can be under house arrest instead of jail, it becomes the duty of the state to protect the person. Therefore, the expenses for the same should also be borne by the state,” added Tanwir. Navlakha has not sought police protection for himself. It is the state that wants to keep him under surveillance.

Conditions for Navlakha’s house arrest

Navlakha would not be permitted to leave Mumbai and only two family members can visit him once a week, for three hours. The apex court ordered that his house would be under surveillance and CCTV cameras would be installed outside the rooms and at entry and exit points of the residence. He would also not be permitted to leave the house, except for walks where we would be accompanied by the police.

He would have no access to the internet, a laptop or any communication device and phone calls will be permitted for 10 minutes a day on a police-approved device. His companion’s phone would also not have internet facility.

He will be permitted to use cable TV and read newspapers and as well as meet his lawyer as per jail manual rules. In case of a medical emergency, the police officers would need to be intimated.

On Wednesday, the bench noted that the chargesheet was filed in 2020 and the trial was yet to commence. Delhi High Court had ordered Navlakha’s house arrest in 2020 before he was sent to jail. The court pointed out that the activist was accused of having links with terrorists and the ISI. “How do you connect the dots? ISIS and Gautam. What is the link?” questioned Justice Joseph.

Navlakha is one of 16 people who have been arrested for their alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon case, which refers to the violence in 2018 at a gathering to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. He had filed his petition for house arrest after one of his co-accused tribal rights activists Stan Swamy, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, died in custody in July 2021. Swamy was repeatedly denied bail despite his deteriorating health.

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