The wholesale acquittal of all 10 persons arrested in connection with a blast at the Police Task Force office at Begumpet in Hyderabad in 2005 must occasion serious introspection on the prevailing gulf between crime and justice. While they no doubt bring relief, acquittals in such cases also carry a sense of injustice, especially when they are based on absence of evidence and not merely because there is some doubt about culpability. It may also seem unfair to those who feel the accused got away; but more often, the injustice flows from the loss suffered by the accused who might have spent years in prison, possibly in the prime of youth. There have been quite a few instances, in recent times, of those arrested for alleged involvement in terrorism incidents being released after years in prison. Examples include Nisar-ud-din Ahmad, who spent 23 years in prison in connection with several train blasts, before the Supreme Court ordered his release last year. Aligarh Muslim University research scholar Gulzar Mohammed Wani spent 16 years in jail on suspicion of being a member of the Hizbul Mujahideen before he was acquitted due to lack of evidence. Exoneration from one or two charges cannot be adequate recompense for the loss of liberty and the trauma of the trial. A key aspect of these cases is that they were serious crimes warranting credible investigation and vigorous prosecution. The outcome, often acquittal for want of evidence, reflects poorly on the investigating machinery as well as the judicial system. In December 2016, the National Investigation Agency managed to get Yasin Bhatkal, founder of the Indian Mujahideen, and four others convicted and sentenced to death in connection with the 2013 twin blasts in Hyderabad, but it is a rare instance of a successful prosecution and a relatively quick trial.
Fairness in the administration of criminal justice is not secured by the final outcome alone, but must be built into the process of determining whether a person is guilty or not. Courts tend to deny bail in cases related to terrorism, but do not show a matching commitment to an expeditious trial. Delayed trials weaken the prosecution’s case. Witnesses tend to forget crucial details or lack the resolve to depose carefully. Every person acquitted may not be innocent; equally, it cannot be said that people are going scot-free after committing grave offences. Individuals come under suspicion for their links with organisations or groups, but are exonerated by courts after the prosecution fails to link them to any particular crime. One way of addressing the problem of prolonged incarceration and perfunctory prosecution is to make it a matter of policy to have a quick and time-bound trial at least in serious cases involving acts of terrorism and those under special laws. Justice, if it has to be substantive, cannot be in slow motion.