March 21: The Supreme Court today almost emptied the death row in the Bombay blasts case but the poverty-linked leniency was overshadowed by an order that is near-certain to send actor Sanjay Dutt back to jail.
The court sentenced Sanjay, 53, to five years in jail, shaving off a year from the original order of a Tada court in 2007. Since the actor has already spent nearly 18 months in jails, he needs to finish a term of three-and-a-half years.
Sanjay will have to surrender in four weeks and begin his term in jail unless he seeks a review and the court takes the rare step of granting a stay.
If the review fails — the chance of success is a little over 1 per cent — the option of a curative petition also exists but that is time-consuming and is unlikely to come into play in the four weeks that stand between him and prison.
Another option to stay out of jail is to win a pardon from the Maharashtra governor — an appeal for which was issued tonight by former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju who referred to the speech of Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to say “justice should be tempered with mercy”.
But while referring to the 10 convicts whose death sentences were commuted to life terms, the court today underscored that the “executive should take due consideration of judicial reasoning before exercising the remission power”.
Sanjay said in a statement this evening: “I am heartbroken because today along with me, my three children and my wife and my family will undergo the punishmentÖ. I have always respected the judicial system and will continue to do so, even with tears in my eyes.”
The actor, on whom film projects valued at Rs 200 crore are riding, has been convicted for possessing an AK-56 rifle and a pistol during the blasts, not for a direct role in the act of terrorism that killed 257 people on March 12, 1993.
With today’s order, only one death sentence — that of Yakub Razak Memon — stays in place.
The Supreme Court “fully agreed” with the Tada court’s view that “the weapons were not acquired for any terrorist activity but they were acquired for self-defence”.
But the apex court refused to grant probation, which would have allowed the actor to remain free under good conduct watch.
The bench of Justices P. Sathasivam and B.S. Chauhan said in the 2,000-page judgment: “The circumstances and the nature of the offence as analysed and discussed above are so serious that we are of the view that they do not warrant A-117 (Sanjay) the benefit of the provisions of the Probation of Offenders Act.”
However, “taking note of various aspects”, the court reduced the sentence to the minimum period — from six years to five.
Sanjay had informed the court that he had remarried, that the couple had two toddlers and the children needed their father’s presence. He had also listed a series of charity initiatives with which he was associated.
“If his conduct is good during his jail stay, his sentence can be commuted by 10 months at the most — making the effective term duration shorter,” said Ujjwal Nikam, the special public prosecutor in the original case.
The legal options before Sanjay are extremely narrow. Sanjay has to approach the same two-judge bench for a review. In the case of a curative petition, two more judges will join the bench.
Review petitions and curative petitions filed before the apex court are heard in closed chambers, barring exceptional circumstances.
A recent instance where a curative petition was allowed came when the court took up the plea of the National Commission of Women to reconsider a ruling that seemed to suggest a mother-in-law kicking a daughter-in-law did not amount to cruelty.
In the Bombay blasts case, the Tada court had acquitted Sanjay of the larger conspiracy for terrorist activities, fuelling a widespread belief that he would eventually be cleared of all charges.
The perception gained ground when the CBI chose to appeal against the acquittal of all the other accused but refrained from challenging the actor’s acquittal — a point noted by the Supreme Court. Then solicitor-general Gopal Subramanium merely sought sustaining the six-year sentence on Sanjay.
However, the Supreme Court today suggested that Sanjay’s confession in 1993 had sealed his fate.
“The appellantÖ implicates himself in the above said statement (confession). The above-said confession is a substantive piece of evidence,” the court said.
Although Sanjay had retracted the statement, the delay in doing so tilted the scales against him. “The retractions were made many months after the recording of the confession,” the court said.
In Mumbai, sources said Sanjay had been sleepless the night before the judgment. “Sanju was unable to sleep at all on Wednesday night — now and then he kept lamenting about his past,” said a family aide.
He had cancelled Thursday’s shoot for his film Policegiri so that he could be with his family at home.
The actor remained closeted in his 10th-floor apartment at Imperial Heights on Pali Hill in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb on Thursday.
Soon after the verdict, an aide sent a text message to The Telegraph in response to a question: “I am OK. Can’t think straight right now, just gathering my thoughts.”
Within minutes of the news of the verdict being delivered, Sanju loyalists in Bollywood started trooping into his home. Among them were directors Raju Hirani and Sujoy Ghosh and producer Bunty Walia.
Of the big stars, the only one who was seen by his side was Vidya Balan — his co-star from Lage Raho Munna Bhai.
All left by 2.30pm when the actor’s lawyer Satish Maneshinde walked in, looking grim.
After Maneshinde left around 4.30pm, Sanjay, who was expected to speak to reporters waiting below his apartment, cancelled the interaction. Around 7pm, his publicist mailed a statement from the actor.
It said: “I have already suffered for 20 years and been in jail for 18 months. If they want me to suffer more, I have to be strong. I am heartbroken because today along with me, my three children and my wife and my family will undergo the punishment.
“I have always respected the judicial system and will continue to do so, even with tears in my eyes. I am going to complete all my films and won’t let anyone down. I am overwhelmed by the support of my fans, the industry people, the media and all the well-wishers. They have always stood by me and supported me. I know in my heart that I have always been a good human being, respected the system and always been loyal to my country.
“My family is very emotional right now and I have to be strong for them. I am shattered and in emotional distress. I am sorry I can’t come down and meet you all. God is great and he will guide me through this.”
Worried Bollywood directors and producers were hoping to finish as much shooting as possible in four weeks.
“Some of us are meeting him — either tomorrow or the day after — to quickly figure out a convenient schedule by which a crucial part of the work can be completed. Some may have to make changes in the storyline,” said a top director.
“Just 12 to 15 days’ shoot is left. For the remaining portion, we will see if we can shoot with Sanjay. We may consider approaching the court to allow him to shoot,” said T.P. Agarwal, the producer of Policegiri.