What is apprehension of bias in these final stages of 12-year-long trial, asks complainant

The Supreme Court on Tuesday reserved its verdict on Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad’s plea, citing bias, that the fodder scam case pending before a trial court in Ranchi be shifted to another judge.

A Bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam and Justices Ranjana Desai and Ranjan Gogoi reserved verdict after hearing senior counsel Ram Jethmalani and senior counsel P.H. Parekh, appearing for Mr. Lalu Prasad and senior counsel Shanti Bhushan, appearing for complainant Janata Dal (United) leader Rajiv Ranjan and Solicitor-General Mohan Parasaran for the CBI.

On July 9, the Bench had stayed the proceedings before the trial court judge, who was to pronounce his judgment on July 15, and sought the views of the CBI.

Mr. Jethmalani traced the history of the case and said the present judge was hearing the case from November 2011. He contended that Minu Devi, the sister of the presiding judge, was married to late Jainendra Shahi, cousin of P.K. Shahi, who, besides having appeared for Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar — his political rival — in the politically motivated PILs as well as for the CBI in criminal cases against Mr. Lalu Prasad, was also presently a Minister in Bihar.

When Justice Sathasivam wanted to know why this issue was not raised earlier, Mr. Jethmalani said the fact came to light only after a photograph of the Minister visiting the sister’s house was published early this year. He said: “Our arguments were heard for 13 days, only for one hour each day and the judge asked us to give written submissions and reserved judgment.”

When the CJI asked how long Mr. Lalu Prasad would take for fresh examination of witnesses if the case was posted before some other judge, Mr. Jethmalani said his counsel would take about 10 days. He opposed intervention by third parties in a criminal case for private purpose.

Mr. Parasaran, apparently supporting Mr. Lalu Prasad, said the CBI would take about 40 days for examination of witnesses. Mr. Parasaran said intervention by third parties should not be permitted and it had been settled by this court in a 2006 judgment.

However, Mr. Shanti Bhushan said if the court was not satisfied with the bona fides of the petitioner, he himself would file the intervention application in this case. He said the case had been going on for 16 years after filing of charge sheet. “There is an inference and public perception that politically-powerful persons could [go scot free] and their cases would not be heard for years. When the trial [is] about to conclude, what is the apprehension of bias,” he asked and opposed the shifting of the case to another judge.