Probe All Acquittals
Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate
Let me at the very outset begin by stating that in an order which will have far-reaching implications for law enforcements and the criminal justice system, the Supreme Court on January 7 has been very direct in ruling that every criminal case ending with the accused being acquitted will have to be examined by state governments to ascertain whether there were lapses by the police and the prosecution or if the accused was deliberately framed. This, the Court said, will ensure that the cause of justice is served and that the guilty do not escape punishment while also guaranteeing that innocents are not implicated in false cases. Very rightly said!
The Supreme Court said the investigating officials be held responsible for shoddy cases after being pained by the lack of evidence, which led to acquittal of a man accused of luring a six-year-old girl to a field, raping and killing her, and severing her feet to steal her anklets. Terrible! The order was prompted by the acquittal of an accused in a minor’s rape and murder case of 2003. It must be mentioned here that in spite of major glaring lapses by the police and prosecution in the case, the bench acquitted the accused but said it was ‘crestfallen, heartbroken and sorrowful’ that it could not serve justice to an innocent child. It lamented, “He must be walking around in Ahmedabad, or some other city/town in India, with his head held high. A criminal on the move. Fearless and fearsome.”
It was held by the bench of Supreme Court comprising of Justice CK Prasad and Justice JS Khehar that ‘the perpetrators of a horrendous crime, involving extremely ruthless and savage treatment to the victim, have remained unpunished. A heartless and merciless criminal, who has committed an extremely heinous crime, has gone scot free.’
The Court added that if the accused was wrongfully prosecuted, his suffering would also have been ‘unfathomable’. The bench has given six months time to governments of all States and Union Territories to put in place a mechanism to examine all orders of acquittal and to record reasons for the failure of prosecution cases.
The bench further directed that, “A standing committee of senior officers of the police and prosecution departments should be vested with aforesaid responsibility. All such erring officers identified as responsible for failure of a prosecution case, on account of sheer negligence or because of culpable lapses, must suffer departmental action. This would infuse seriousness in the performance of investigating and prosecuting duties, and would ensure that investigation and prosecution are purposeful and decisive.” Let me also bring out here that even though the trial court had found the accused from Ahmedabad guilty and was awarded death penalty but both the High Court and the Supreme Court had found the evidence woefully inadequate to pronounce him guilty.
The bench also ordered governments to evolve a concrete procedure beforehand so that only persons against whom there is sufficient evidence undergo the rigorous of criminal prosecution. Further, the bench also directed the prosecuting agency to rectify all shortcomings, if necessary by requiring further investigation, after the initial probe is completed. The bench also emphasised that, “It should also be ensured that the evidence gathered during investigation is truly and faithfully utilized, by confirming that all relevant witnesses and materials for proving the charges are conscientiously presented during the trial of a case.”
Underlining that “every acquittal should be understood as a failure of the justice delivery system,” the Court reasoned that an acquittal would necessarily mean two things – either the police and prosecution failed to secure justice for the victims, or the accused was framed. It was held that, “On the culmination of a criminal case in acquittal, the concerned investigating/prosecuting official(s) responsible for such acquittal must necessarily be identified. A finding needs to be recorded in each case, whether the lapse was innocent or blameworthy. Each erring officer must suffer the consequence of his lapse, by appropriate departmental action, whenever called for the official may be withdrawn from investigative responsibilities, permanently or temporarily, depending purely on his culpability.” The bench asked governments to also improve their training programmes for investigating and prosecuting agencies so that they could not feign innocence or lack of knowledge if lapses are committed. The bench also directed that, “We direct the home department of every state government to formulate a procedure for taking action against all erring investigating or prosecuting officials.”
This landmark judgement must be taken most seriously by Government and acted upon without any further ado! The real reason behind shoddy investigations carried out by police is lack of effective and meaningful police reforms as was also held by the Supreme Court in another landmark case of Prakash Singh in 2006. They must be implemented now in totality.
Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde again on January 10 advised all state governments not to detain any minority youth wrongly in the name of terror. He also said he would write to all state governments, urging them to set up panels to review cases of terror against youths from minority communities who were being held without trial for long periods. “I am again writing to all CMs asking them to appoint a screening or advisory committee, like in the case of POTA. These will be state-level committees,” Shinde said. The Home Minister said his proposed advisory for review panels, on the lines of a provision available under the erstwhile Prevention of Terrorism Act, was not specific to Muslims but all minorities. Shinde had written to the states in September too, saying they ought to avoid “wrongfully” detaining Muslim youths, citing growing concerns in the community that they were being “deliberately” targeted.
Why bring vote bank politics even here?: Modi
Urging Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to intervene against Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde’s stand on arrest of minorities, BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi on January 15 said, “Home Minister’s suggestion marks an unprecedented low for the country. PM should intervene and take necessary action.”
“Thankfully, our criminal justice system has never taken into account faith or religion of an accused. Why bring vote bank politics even here?,” he asked. “A crime is a crime irrespective of birth marks of the criminal. Religious beliefs can’t determine guilt or innocence,” said Shri Modi. “It is clear that this is an attempt by the Home Minister to tinker with the criminal justice system of the nation and in violation of the laws of our land,” Shri Modi wrote to the PM. He further stated that the police and public order were state subjects with investigation being an integral part of it, and so, any wrongful and malafide arrest of a citizen, irrespective of his caste or community, should get the same redressal.