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Ten years to trial, unknown to verdict

New Delhi/Lucknow, Nov. 29: The Supreme Court may have signalled the start of the trial of deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and seven others with a directive today — 10 years after the Babri mosque demolition — but it will take several long years more for the process to be completed.

No lawyer is sure of the “time” it would take for thousands of witnesses to be examined in three stages, legally known as “examination in chief, cross examination and re-examination”.

The sheer volume of such evidence will make arguments, counter-arguments and summations after witnesses are examined a lengthy process.

The Supreme Court today directed that the trial of a group of eight, including Advani, can begin in a special court at Rae Bareli. “It means that the trial of L.K. Advani and others will now start. But it will raise new questions,” I.B. Singh, senior advocate, said.

One of these questions is how independently the CBI, a Central agency, will conduct a case against Advani, the home minister, and two other ministers, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti.

Still, the Allahabad High Court notification to appoint a judicial magistrate to conduct the trial at Rae Bareli will be trumpeted by the BJP and its Uttar Pradesh ally, chief minister Mayavati, as evidence of non-partisan behaviour.

“My stand has been vindicated and there was no pressure whatsoever from the BJP,” a jubilant Mayavati said.

Announcement of the notification caught the opposition unawares, too. “But for it, the trial would not have even commenced,” senior counsel O.P. Sharma said.

Sharma, representing Mohammad Aslam alias Bhure who filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a direction to Uttar Pradesh to issue a notification, acknowledged the role of the state government.

“It was a surprise that the state government suddenly brought it to the court today,” he said.

The senior counsel for Uttar Pradesh, K.K. Venugopal, said that under the Criminal Procedure Code, the state government has to notify “in consultation with the chief justice” (of the high court concerned) the establishment of a court at a given place. The high court by notification appoints the presiding judge of such a court,” he said.

This time, though, the government did not have to issue a notification setting up a court at Rae Bareli because one was already there. A special judicial magistrate’s court for trial of case No. 198 against the group of eight was constituted in December 1992 and that notification had never been withdrawn. But the court stopped functioning from January 25, 1994, when the case records were transferred to a special court in Lucknow.

All it had to do was get the high court to appoint a judge. “Had the high court notification not come, the Mayavati government would have lost face in the apex court,” advocate Singh said.

“The CBI will now have to prepare the case afresh since it had filed a combined chargesheet against all the accused in both case Nos. 197 and 198 in the Lucknow special court,” said Akhilesh Chandra, a senior advocate.

Case No. 197 was general in nature, filed against karsevaks who allegedly took part in the demolition. In case No. 198, the group of eight was named.

In a verdict in February 2001, Allahabad High Court said the Lucknow special court could not try the group because of a technical defect in the government notification.

While the eight were let off the hook, the Lucknow special court subsequently dropped charges against 13 other accused who had been arraigned in the chargesheet filed by the CBI clubbing cases 197 and 198.

These beneficiaries included Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh. “It is not clear which court will now hear the cases against them,” Singh said.

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