The Bombay High Court on Friday acquitted former Delhi University professor GN Saibaba after he was sentenced to life imprisonment in March 2017 for having links with Maoists.

A bench of Justices Rohit Deo and Anil Pansare held that a sessions court in Gadchiroli had charged Saibaba under provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act without sanctions from the central government.

Following his conviction in 2017, Saibaba was lodged at the Nagpur Central Jail. He was arrested in May 2014 after the police alleged that he was “likely to indulge in anti-national activities”. The former professor was granted interim bail in April 2016.

The 55-year-old is wheelchair-bound as he suffers from ailments due to which 90% of his body is disabled.

Several human rights bodies and civil society groups had demanded his release on health grounds.

On Friday, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court directed jail authorities to immediately release him. The court was hearing Saibaba’s appeal against his conviction and life-term sentence.

The court also allowed the appeal of five other convicts in the case and directed jail authorities to release them unless they have been named as accused in other matters. One of the five convicts, Pandu Narote, died in prison.

The sanction order issued to prosecute the accused person in the case under the stringent provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was “bad in law and invalid”, the judges said in the order.

The court said while the state must fight terror with “unwavering resolve”, a civil democratic society cannot sacrifice the due process of law on the perceived danger to national security.

“We are inclined to hold, that every safeguard, however miniscule, legislatively provided to the accused, must be zealously protected,” the High Court said.

The court said that departure from due process of law fosters an ecosystem in which terrorism flourishes.

“The siren song that the end justifies the means, and that the procedural safeguards are subservient to the overwhelming need to ensure that the accused is prosecuted and punished, must be muzzled by the voice of rule of law,” the court added.

The order also stressed on the importance of procedural compliances in cases of terrorism. “Any aberration shall only be counter productive, since empirical evidence suggests that departure from the due process of law fosters an ecosystem in which terrorism burgeons and provides fodder to vested interests whose singular agenda is to propagate false narrative,” it said.

‘No crime, no evidence’

Meanwhile, activists, lawyers and politicians welcomed Saibaba’s acquittal on Friday.

Human rights activist Teesta Setalvad described the acquittal as “reassuring news” and said that Saibaba’s wife AS Vasantha had fought valiantly.

Vasantha said her family had faith that he would be acquitted one day. “There was no crime and no evidence,” she told PTI. “I am thankful to the judiciary and all those who supported us. He is an intellectual and a professor who only knows how to read and pen his thoughts. He can only teach. It was a false case in which he was in jail.”

Lawyer Prashant Bhushan noted that despite being disabled in poor health, he was kept in the high-security “anda cell” in the jail. Lawyer Indira Jaising congratulated Saibaba’s legal team and expressed her condolences for Narote.

All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi said that Saibaba “suffered immensely in prison for years” because of the anti-terror law.

“UAPA is a monster created by the collaboration of BJP and Congress,” he said on Twitter. “Its victims are mostly innocent Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis and dissenters. Only 3% of accused have been convicted under UAPA, but innocent people arrested under it remain in jail for years.”