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WITHDRAW THE CASES

THERE WAS ALWAYS only one rational conclusion with respect to the flagrantly unjust and politically motivated cases slapped on Vaiko, the general secretary of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and eight other partymen under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Thankfully, the Central POTA Review Committee, which was recently given the legal teeth to check the misuse of the draconian anti-terrorism legislation, has arrived at just this. At one level, the Review Committee's finding that there is no prima facie case against Mr. Vaiko and eight others emerges from the obvious — the lack of even an iota of evidence to show that they were engaged in terrorist activity or for that matter any form of illegality. At another level, the Committee's conclusion flows naturally from the Supreme Court's ruling in December 2003. In that judgment, the Court, while upholding the constitutional validity of POTA, sanitised what was possibly the most controversial and dangerous provision in the law, by making a vital distinction between merely expressing verbal sympathy for a banned terrorist organisation and acting in a manner that invites support for its activities. Once the Court held that Section 21 of POTA will be attracted only when there is a criminal intention of furthering terrorist activity, the cases against Mr. Vaiko and eight of his partymen, who were booked for making allegedly pro-LTTE speeches, had no legal leg to stand on.

The Central Review Committee's finding that there is no prima facie case against the nine is binding on the Tamil Nadu Government. The anti-terrorism law was amended last year with the main purpose of giving the Central and State Review Committees, which enjoyed hardly any powers under the unamended Act, the authority to determine whether POTA has been misused in a particular case and, where warranted, direct a State Government to withdraw it. The new powers granted to the Review Committees were upheld by the Madras High Court, which ruled that if such a Committee came to the conclusion that a case "is fit to be withdrawn from prosecution, it can address the State Government which, in turn, has to instruct the public prosecutor" to withdraw the case. The Court added the caveat that it was then up to the public prosecutor to "apply his mind independently" and for the special court trying the case to decide whether the plea for withdrawal "is acceptable or not."

Having pursued the cases against Mr. Vaiko and his partymen in the face of grave misgivings and serious legal doubt, the Jayalalithaa Government must show the good sense to have them withdrawn quickly. The outrageous injustice done to Mr. Vaiko, who spent 19 months in detention before being released on bail, is incalculable and impossible to redress. The MDMK leader would be fully justified in seeking exemplary compensation for the manner in which his liberty was curtailed, for reasons that smack of political vendetta and through the (mis)use of a draconian provision in a bad law. The Central Review Committee's findings on the MDMK cases must be welcomed. At the same time, the very fact that such Committees are needed to review specific POTA cases constitutes a damning indictment of the anti-terrorism law, a shocking admission of the wanton misuse it has been and can be put to. It is only a matter of time before the cases against Mr. Vaiko and his partymen are formally brought to a close. But POTA — the legal basis for the agony they were made to undergo — remains on the statute book. For the sake of liberty and democracy, the campaign for scrapping the indefensible law must continue unabated.

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