Bias plea baseless, can’t be raised on eve of judgment

Dismissing allegations of bias and pointing out that it is not desirable to shift the case at the last hour, the Supreme Court has declined to entertain a petition filed by RJD leader Lalu Prasad for transferring the fodder scam trial pending against him before the court of special judge-IV, CBI, Ranchi, Jharkhand, to another judge. Mr. Prasad alleged that the younger sister of presiding judge Minu Devi was married to Jainendra Shahi, cousin of P.K. Shahi, who, besides having appeared for the CBI, was his political rival in public interest litigation and presently Minister in Bihar. A photograph of the Chief Minister visiting Ms. Minu Devi’s house was published only in January this year. Thus, he would not get fair justice at the hands of the presiding judge, said Mr. Prasad.

However, a three-judge Bench on Tuesday said: “Merely because some of the distantly related members were in the midst of the present Chief Minister [in a photograph], it cannot be presumed that the presiding judge would conclude against the appellant.”

Writing the judgment, Chief Justice of India P. Sathasivam said: “Admittedly, the criminal proceedings were heard by the very same judge from November 2011. After examination of witnesses and after hearing the arguments on both sides, it is not clear how the appellant has such an apprehension at this stage. If the appellant really had any apprehension, this could have been raised at the earliest point of time and not after the conclusion of evidence and arguments, particularly, on the eve of pronouncement of judgment.”

On Mr. Prasad’s grievance that he might not get impartial trial, the Bench, which included Justices Ranjana Desai and Ranjan Gogoi said: “Cognisance of various offences punishable under the IPC and the Prevention of Corruption Act was taken against the accused persons in 1997 and charges were framed in 2000.” Moreover, the prosecution took 13 years for examining the witnesses. “On going through all the details including the Order Sheet of the Fodder scam case, we are of the view that the procedure adopted by the special judge cannot be faulted except one aspect, which was also noticed by the Jharkhand High Court, [of] intimating the parties in the midst of arguments and compelling them to file written arguments on or before July 1, and [when] judgment [was] to be pronounced on July 15. Except the said recourse, which is not in consonance with the scheme of the Cr. PC particularly, in a criminal trial, considering the magnitude of the case pending since 1997, the conduct of the judge cannot be faulted. In our view, in a matter of this nature, it is not at all desirable to shift the case to some other court at the last hour.”

However, “keeping in view the submissions made that arguments are still to be advanced, we grant a further time of five days for the prosecution and 15 days for all the accused including the appellant. After completion of the arguments, we direct the special judge to pronounce the decision as early as possible, uninfluenced by any of the observations made by the High Court and this court,” the Bench said.

The case pertains to fraudulent withdrawal of Rs. 37.7 crore from the Chalisba treasury in the 1990s when Mr. Prasad was Chief Minister. Fifty-four of the 61 cases were transferred to Jharkhand when that State was carved out of Bihar.