Siddique Kappan’s fate continues to hang in balance with court reserving verdict on bail plea

Journalist Siddique Kappan was en route to cover alleged gang-rape and murder of a Dalit woman in Hathras when he was detained on October 5, 2020 by the Uttar Pradesh Police

Siddique Kappan’s fate continues to hang in balance with court reserving verdict on bail plea

Ashlin Mathew

Twenty two months after being arrested by Uttar Pradesh Police while on his way to cover the alleged gang-rape and murder of a Dalit woman in Hathras, journalist Siddique Kappan’s bail plea verdict was reserved by the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court on Tuesday, August 2.

The bail application by Kappan, lodged in Lucknow jail, was admitted by the court in February 2022.

In his concluding arguments in the matter before Justice Krishna Pahal, additional advocate general VK Shahi contended that Kappan intended to disturb harmony in Hathras in collusion with the other co-accused, funded by Popular Front of India (PFI). They had participated in anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests and wanted to create unrest after the Babri Masjid verdict too, he alleged.

Kappan, who was freelancing for a news portal, Azhimukham, was initially arrested under Section 151 of the CrPC on October 5, 2020 at a toll plaza near Mathura along with three others in the vehicle and the vehicle’s driver. The provision allows a police officer to arrest anyone without orders from a magistrate and without a warrant if they know of a design of commit a cognisable offence.

The state argued that Rauf Shareef, who has also been arrested in the case, was the secretary of PFI in Kerala and that he transferred Rs 25,000 in Kappan’s account for going to Hathras. The state’s counsel submitted that as they had allegedly found literature of the banned organisation Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) from his house, he was working for the organisation and hence Kappan shouldn’t be granted bail.

Shahi alleged that because Kappan was earlier working with Malayalam daily Thejas, owned by PFI, they were all inter-connected and Kappan was working on behalf of PFI. Incidentally, the paper closed down in 2018 and now it only has an online edition.

“The judgement has been reserved and we don’t know when the verdict will be pronounced. Even now we have not been given the 5,000-page chargesheet which was filed by the UP Police in April 2021. This is just BJP’s game plan to target common citizens to drill fear into everyone. How can working for Thejas be a crime? The government is simply harassing us for no reason and it is the family that is suffering,” said Raihanath Kappan, Siddique Kappan’s wife.

Kappan’s lawyers had completed their arguments in the HC on July 27, 2022. Ishan Baghel, who assisted senior advocate IB Singh in the case, pointed out that the government had neither been able to provide a single document incriminating Kappan nor prove his alleged connection with PFI.

“Kappan has been a journalist for the last 15 years with no criminal antecedents. He was just performing his journalistic duties by deciding to report on the Hathras incident. The amount which was deposited in his account was the salary from Azhimukham,” said Baghel.

Kappan has reported for Malayalam-language media organisations including Azhimukham, Thejas Daily, and Thalsamayam Midday Daily. However, the state has submitted his chats with Thejas editor P Koya as evidence of conspiracy. Baghel pointed out that Kappan knew Koya as he worked for the organisation.

Additionally, Kappan had hired the cab from an aggregator and he was taking along a translator too.

Baghel underscored that possession of literature of a banned organisation doesn’t imply support for it.

Along with Kappan, those arrested included Atiq-ur Rehman, Delhi state general secretary for Campus Front of India (CFI) and member of the Jamia Coordination Committee; Masood Ahmed; and the cab driver, Mohammed Alam. Kappan is also a former treasurer of CFI.

In February 2021, Uttar Pradesh Police arrested CFI general secretary Rauf Shareef from Kochi on charges of money laundering. On February 15, 2021, the UP Police Special Task Force (STF) arrested Badruddin and Firoz Khan, two members of the Popular Front of India, for allegedly planning multiple blasts in UP. An eighth accused person, Danish, was already in Delhi Police custody for his alleged role in the violence that rocked north-east Delhi in January 2020.

Immediately after his arrest on October 5, 2020, the journalist’s wife Raihanath Kappan and Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) had filed a habeas corpus petition in the Supreme Court as Kappan was elected secretary of KUWJ’s Delhi unit. On October 6, he was produced before a magistrate and sent to 14-day judicial custody in Mathura jail.

On October 7, 2020, an FIR was registered at the Maant police station in Mathura district, charging Kappan with Section 124A (sedition), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, etc) and 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), along with provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and the Information Technology Act.

In April 2021, Kappan had tested positive for Covid-19 and had suffered multiple injuries after a fall in the prison bathroom. He was then shifted to Mathura’s KM Medical College and Hospital. Raihanath had then written to Chief Justice of India NV Ramana seeking his release from the hospital, claiming that he “was chained like an animal to the cot” and was unable to eat, move or go to the toilet. She had sought his intervention to allow her husband to go back to the district jail as he did not want to be in the hospital. He was taken back to Mathura jail after he tested negative.

KUWJ had also filed a petition in the Supreme Court requesting Kappan’s shifting from KM Medical College and Hospital to All India Institute of Medical Sciences or Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi.

The Supreme Court directed the UP government to transfer him to a better hospital in the national capital after it came to light that Kappan had several injuries, severe diabetes, a heart ailment and high blood pressure. Kappan was shifted to AIIMS on May 1, 2021, along with a jail doctor and deputy jailor and was sent back to Mathura a week later without informing the lawyers, said Raihanath. Though she had reached Delhi to meet him in the hospital, she was not allowed to do so.

A month later, in June 2021, Maant sub-divisional magistrate discharged Kappan and three others on charges under Section 151 of the CrPC as the police had failed to complete the inquiry against them within the prescribed period of six months. However, his bail application was rejected again in July 2021.

Fourteen months after his incarceration, in December 2021, Additional and Sessions Judge Anil Kumar Pandey ordered the transfer of the case to Lucknow after an application by the Special Task Force that the UP government had constituted a special court in the state capital for hearing cases registered under the NIA Act. Soon after, Kappan was shifted from Mathura to Lucknow prison.

Raihanath Kappan filed an application with the Lucknow bench under Section 482 of the CrPC in February this year to quash the “patently illegal prosecution sanctions” against her husband under the UAPA.

“The continued incarceration of journalist Siddique Kappan, for over 22 months and counting, is a violation of press freedom and a chilling manifestation of censorship in India -- where a journalist on duty, merely proceeding to a trouble spot to cover a crime, is locked up on terror charges and denied bail without any shred of evidence,” said Geeta Seshu, co-founder Free Speech Collective, which tracks violations to right to freedom of expression.

“The gruesome Hathras gang rape and murder is all but forgotten. When messengers are shot or attacked or locked up, the stories they seek to cover die with them or are buried under the weight of the intimidation and fear unleashed by these repressive State actions,” she added.

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