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Hijack Hoax: Why Mumbai Bizman’s Sentencing Sets New Precedent for Air Travel Safety Violations

Birju Salla was sentenced to life imprisonment and was slapped with a fine of Rs 5 crore by a special NIA court in Ahmedabad on Tuesday for leaving a hijack note in the toilet of a Mumbai-Delhi flight on October 30, 2017.

Aditya Sharma | News18.com@aditya_shz

Updated:June 12, 2019, 8:14 PM IST
Hijack Hoax: Why Mumbai Bizman’s Sentencing Sets New Precedent for Air Travel Safety Violations
File photo of businessman Birju Salla.

New Delhi: The life sentencing of Mumbai businessman Birju Salla for placing a hoax hijack note on a Jet Airways plane to force his girlfriend to shift to Mumbai from Delhi as the first trial under India’s Anti-Hijacking Act, 2016, has set a new precedent for air travel safety violations.

Salla was sentenced to life imprisonment and was slapped with a fine of Rs 5 crore by a special NIA court in Ahmedabad on Tuesday for leaving the hijack note in Urdu and English in a tissue paper box of the toilet on a Mumbai-Delhi flight on October 30, 2017.

He asked the plane to be flown into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to force the Jet Airways to shut operations in Delhi that would free his girlfriend who worked in the now-defunct airline’s Delhi office and let her come back to Mumbai.

The Anti-Hijacking Act, 2016, passed under the first Narendra Modi government to repeal and replace a dated 1982 law on the same, considers hoax hijack calls a serious punishable offence.

According to the government, the 1982 law failed to comprehensively define hijacking by not including any attempt to seize control of an aircraft using “any technological means” and without the hijacker’s actual on-board presence. The new Act addressed these issues.

The Anti-Hijacking Bill, 2014, was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in December that year by the then minister of civil aviation, Ashok Gajapathi Raju.

Parliament had cleared the law in 2016, but it hadn't come into force until 2017 because the government hadn't framed the rules.

Raju had told Parliament that the country had witnessed 19 hijacking incidents till then.

The hoax call by Salla, and the legal action taken against him had to be weighed in by a margin of intent, motive and severity.

Rohit Verma, the defence lawyer, said, “The Act has been drafted in such a manner that for someone to be held guilty under it, the accused’s actions must be perceived to be credible of crime,” he said.

He said the judge perceived Salla’s action criminal in nature because the flight was flying to Delhi when the hoax note sought a diversion. “The moment, the pilot finds the threat to be credible, the Act understands this hoax note to be credible for punishment,” he added.​

In 2017, Air India banned the then Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad for beating up a staffer, a punitive action which was lifted within two weeks of the incident after the lawmaker sent a regret letter to the civil aviation minister.

However, senior criminal lawyer Mehmood Pracha said Salla’s sentencing was “unjustified” given the “intent and motive” of the latter’s action.

“The basic concern of hijacking must limit itself to real crime committed. If the crime committed is not real then the punishment must not be so harsh. In any criminal case, intent and motive are the most crucial aspects. It is not just about holding the person guilty, but also about wise sentencing,” said Pracha.

The senior lawyer said instead of a life sentencing, financial burden should have been put on Salla.

Of the total Rs 5 crore fine imposed on Salla, the special court has ordered that each pilot on the aircraft be paid a compensation of Rs 1 lakh, flight attendants Rs 50,000 each and Rs 25,000 each for the passengers on board for the “misery undergone by them”.

News18 spoke to senior criminal lawyer Majid Memon who supported the special court’s verdict.

He said, “The offence of hijacking is one among the most serious offences which could entail death penalty. Facts in cases of hijacking differ greatly from each other. Each case has to be examined differently. The court of justice has to consider the facts and circumstances of Salla’s case — whether it was done out of fun or he was mentally unfit or it was an impulsive act. The court has rated all these facts and taken its decision,” said Memon.

Comparing Salla’s actions to that of pulling the chain of a train to halt it, Memon said both “actions are major crimes in the eyes of law in their own given contexts”.

“The law of hijacking has international ramifications. Hijacking an aircraft is equivalent to the act of terror. Therefore, the recipient of the punishment would be disentitled to any mercy or leniency,” he said.

The Jet Airways plane had to make an emergency landing at the Ahmedabad airport where an Aerodrome Committee, comprising CISF and police personnel, had assembled to isolate and check thoroughly the plane. National Security Guard (NSG) commandos had also conducted their anti-hijack drill.

Pracha, however, said that such harsh punishment in not-so-severe crimes committed are “counter-productive” because they are usually “overturned by higher courts”.

He cited the example of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) (TADA) Act to explain why special court sentences may be counterproductive.

“If you see the history of TADA and POTA, both Acts were repealed soon after their enactment because of their misuse. Police had started persecuting, prosecuting and convicting people who had committed crimes, otherwise considered minor. The government had to reconsider these Acts because of this,” he said.

“Harsh punishment under such laws are counterproductive because of public outcry. Eventually, such laws are diluted,” the senior lawyer added.

Calling for “graded punishment”, Pracha said, “It is better to be realistic and have stringent laws that propose punishment in consonance with the intent of action”.

“A separation or gradation in punishment under stringent laws is an absolute must. Salla’s motive to place the hijack note had a perverse motive, but it did not have a serious motive to harm the government,” he added.

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| Edited by: Sohini Goswami
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