Long road to trial

NEW DELHI 26/02/2020: A fire broke out in a shop in scrap market in Gokulpuri (north east Delhi) it has been reported that rioters are behind this incident, in New Delhi on Wednesday. Photo Sandeep Saxena

NEW DELHI 26/02/2020: A fire broke out in a shop in scrap market in Gokulpuri (north east Delhi) it has been reported that rioters are behind this incident, in New Delhi on Wednesday. Photo Sandeep Saxena

More than a year’s patience, approximately 400 court dates and a 17,000-page chargesheet sum up the north-east Delhi riots “larger conspiracy case” that is yet to see the beginning of a trial. While legal technicalities have often been cited as reasons for the delay, the Delhi High Court in a recent order called for swift disposal of UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act) cases, noting that these involve serious offences and it is not easy for those in custody to secure bail.

The chargesheet invokes the stringent UAPA hnd names former AAP councillor Tahir Hussain, Pinjra Tod activists Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, former JNU students Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam, Jamia Millia Islamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha and MBA student Gulfisha Fatima.

A total of 18 persons have been named in the chargesheet, which accuses them of “engineering the north-east Delhi riots in February 2020 under the garb of anti-CAA protests”. Five of the 18 accused have been granted bail.

According to the chargesheet, the accused, through various secret meetings and WhatsApp groups, planned and coordinated the disruption in which 53 people were killed and 581 were injured. The police have also alleged that the accused were the “top conspirators” who directed their “foot soldiers” to carry out the violence.

Currently, the defence lawyers are scrutinising documents and reports provided to them by the prosecution as part of the evidence. While at least half-a-dozen riot cases have gone to trial and charges have been framed in 67 cases, the present matter saw multiple applications moved by the defence lawyers, seeking prosecution evidence that was not provided to them earlier. Several ongoing bail applications, for which hearings have been on for months, are also delaying the case proceedings.

The defence lawyers who received the chargesheet copy six months ago attributed the delay in the case to the investigating agency’s “inefficiency in providing the basic documents”. According to them, unnecessary complications make the preparation of defence a “nightmarish exercise”.

Tussle over hard copy

The chargesheet, floating a conspiracy theory of pre-planned riots, was filed by the Delhi Police Special Cell before the Karkardooma court on September 16. The court took cognisance of it within 24 hours and directed the prosecution to supply soft copies of the chargesheet to the lawyers and hard copies to the accused in jail.

The slowdown began when the prosecution informed about “inadvertent inclusion” of protected witnesses in the copies of the chargesheet. The court asked for a fresh set of copies with redacted versions. On October 21, 2020, the prosecution informed and provided the same in pen drives and argued that they had adhered to Section 207 of CrPC, which pertains to supplying the accused with relevant police reports and other documents.

The Investigating Officer (IO) also requested 15 days’ time to provide hard copies of the chargesheet as funds had to be sanctioned from the Delhi government. The court was not “impressed” with the submission and called for immediate supply of the hard copies. The Delhi Police then challenged this order, noting that it was passed in a mechanical manner, following which a single-judge bench of Justice Suresh Kumar Kait stayed the trial on November 10.

On November 22, the police filed a 930-page supplementary chargesheet in the matter, naming Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam and one Faizan Khan as accused. A second supplementary chargesheet containing evidence from CCTV footage was filed in February 2021. Over a course of nine hearings, the trial was finally vacated five months later on March 23, after the prosecution submitted that the hard copies were ready to be supplied.

Chain of applications

It was in March 2020 that lawyers for several accused moved applications under Section 207 of CrPC, asking for electronic evidence, WhatsApp chats and other documents which the prosecution had relied upon while filing the chargesheet but not annexed with it.

However, the prosecution opposed the applications by Devangana Kalita, who sought copies of electronic evidence against her and Asif Iqbal Tanha, who sought a cloned copy of his mobile phone seized by the police.

The police claimed the digital data recovered from the seized devices were “voluminous” and contained private content of several accused persons and providing the same to a co-accused would “infringe upon their privacy”.

It has been eight months now. Kalita’s plea awaits disposal. But Tanha received the cloned copy of his mobile phone. There are several such applications yet to be heard by the court. Umar Khalid moved his bail plea in July 2021 and it is currently in the stage of prosecution arguments.

A defence lawyer, requesting anonymity, blamed the prosecution for not providing complete documents and compelling the accused to move applications seeking evidence against them.

“The prosecution is duty bound to supply it. Without access to all the material being used against us, how will I be able to cross-examine witnesses during the trial and prove myself not guilty?" the lawyer asked. “There is no question of the trial beginning anytime soon,” he added.

The Public Prosecutor in the case, Amit Prasad, told The Hindu that there has been no delay from the police or the prosecution and the onus is on the defence lawyers to scrutinise the documents and let the trial begin at the earliest.

“We want the trial to start quickly and all the witnesses to depose as soon as possible. But right now, the defence lawyers are moving applications seeking both relied and unrelated documents, which is taking up a lot of time,” he said, adding that once all the applications are disposed of, arguments on framing of charges will begin.

With activist Khalid Saifi's bail plea lingering for months with multiple adjournments, his wife Nargis Saifi does not expect the trial to begin anytime in the near future. “Our priority is to get him out on bail, especially with COVID spreading so fast. It seems impossible given the history of multiple adjournments in the past,” she said.

“The case will go on for years. Justice is being delayed,” said Matloob Alam, brother of another accused, Meeran Haider, whose bail hearings are not over yet.

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Printable version | May 24, 2022 5:58:17 pm |