New Delhi, Sept. 19: The nation’s highest court today assumed the role of a trial court as it made Gujarat’s top police officer stand up and admit that witnesses who turned hostile in riot cases, especially the Best Bakery massacre, “appeared to have been won over”.
The admission of director-general of police K. Chakravarthy came before a three-judge bench of Chief Justice V.. Khare and Justices Brijesh Kumar and S.B. Sinha which virtually grilled him and chief secretary P.K. Lahiri.
This is the first time that the apex court acted almost like a trial court, asking the two officials to stand up and answer questions which were recorded by the court master verbatim in the open court.
A constitutional court like the Supreme Court or the high courts do not usually cross-examine witnesses. High courts can order a trial court to “appreciate” more witnesses and even order retrial if they feel more evidence is required.
The chief justice overruled objections raised by the two officials regarding the questioning in the open court. He said no “sensitive question nor merits of the case” would be asked when the chief secretary told the bench he would like to make his “submissions in-camera” if “sensitive questions” are put to him.
In the half-hour grilling, the DGP said neither he nor the police commissioner did anything about witnesses turning hostile and that when he asked the commissioner the reason, the official had replied that “they appeared to have been won over”.
The chief secretary said files relating to “criminal cases” in general and the Best Bakery in particular “do not come to me” and that he would hold meetings with the law department and prosecutors “only when told to do so by the chief minister or the law or home ministers”.
Of the 43 witnesses in the bakery case, 37 had turned hostile, including main witness Zahira Sheikh who later told the National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court that she was threatened into silence. With most witnesses turning hostile, the trial court had on July 27 acquitted all those accused of burning alive 14 people at the bakery in March last year.
However, in early August, the state government had appealed against the acquittals, though the apex court had called it an “eyewash”.
The chief justice today made it clear that the apex court would continue to monitor the case. At this, the Gujarat government, through an affidavit, gave an assurance that “grounds of appeal” in Gujarat High Court against the trial court’s acquittals would be amended and copies filed to the apex court for its satisfaction.
The judges fixed October 9 for the next hearing when it will take up the amended petition and the issue on protection to witnesses so that they do not turn hostile.
In its affidavit, the government said an officer of the rank of inspector general would supervise the prosecution’s progress in all riot-related cases. Special prosecutors chosen from among the “leaders of the bar” will also be appointed.