An application filed by activist Rona Wilson in the Bombay high court last week seeking his discharge in the Bhima-Koregaon case raises serious questions that demand the urgent attention of the judiciary and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) probing the case.
In his petition, Mr Wilson has cited a report by a US forensic audit firm that his computer was accessed by outsiders who planted documents in it, which led to his arrest in June 2018. He has also sought the constitution of a special investigation team to analyse the electronic evidence.
The police had raided Mr Wilson’s house in April 2018 and seized electronic evidence, including a laptop and thumb drive, alleging that he had a role in the violent incidents that took place in the village in January 2018. The US lab, Arsenal Consulting, conducted an audit of the forensic images of the digital devices after NIA made them available to his legal team. As per the report, first published in Washington Post, “the incriminating documents were delivered to a hidden folder on Mr Wilson’s computer by a malware and not by other means”.
The computer was compromised on June 13, 2016, after a series of suspicious emails sent by someone purportedly using the email account of Varavara Rao, another accused in the case, the report claimed. No evidence which would suggest that the top 10 most important documents used in the prosecution against Mr Wilson were ever interacted with in any legitimate way on Mr Wilson’s computer, the report said and called the incident “one of the most serious cases involving evidence tampering”.
The NIA has since denied the charge and said its case has been backed up circumstantial and oral evidence. It is hard to comprehend that the device was compromised for 22 months, says the NIA. The agency also says the digital extracts submitted in the court along with the chargesheet were examined at Regional Forensic Science Laboratory, Pune, which showed no evidence of any malware in any device.
The contradictory positions taken by the investigating agency and the defence here are unusual, to say the least. The activist’s position, seemingly backed by evidence, needs a thorough investigation. If it’s true, then it is a signal about the dangerous situation in which every citizen in this country can find themselves in — a hacker can land you in jail under the most stringent law of the land. If it’s false, then the lab that conducted the audit, and the processes it has employed, must undergo a thorough review as it could undermine criminal investigation.
The court must seriously and expeditiously consider Mr Wilson’s plea for a special investigation into the audit report. And the NIA should not shrink from it; it should welcome it instead. It is in the interest of the agency too that the veracity of the allegation is checked and the truth comes out. The ends of justice will be met only when the new report is subjected to a transparent and scientific scrutiny. The judiciary must ensure it....