Stating that it finds “no justification” in quashing the criminal prosecution of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi in the National Herald case, the Supreme Court on Friday held that the trial against them shall proceed.
“Insofar as the determination rendered by the (Delhi) High Court, in rejecting the prayer for quashing the proceedings against the petitioners is concerned, we find no justification in interfering therewith,” said a bench of Justice J S Khehar and Justice C Nagappan.
Allowing the Delhi magistrate to proceed with the criminal case filed by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, the bench said “it is not our business to get into all this” and that the court has a “very limited scope” to interject at this stage.
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Senior lawyers Kapil Sibal and Abhishek Manu Singhvi, representing the Gandhis and three other Congress leaders — Motilal Vora, Sam Pitroda and Suman Dubey — argued that there cannot be public interest in a case where allegations include cheating and criminal breach of trust.
“Swamy’s complaint has to be dismissed on the ground of locus since he is neither a victim nor a deceived person,” they said. The lawyers told the bench that nobody linked with the Associated Journal Limited (AJL) — which ran the National Herald newspaper — or the Congress party has come forward to complain.
But the bench replied that all this should be argued before the magistrate. “Let there be a fair trial. You will have ample opportunities to say all this at the stage of charge framing. You cannot come here directly. The High Court has also said this in its order. We affirm the liberty granted by the High Court, and reiterate the same. We hereby permit the petitioners to raise all the issues that are open to them, at the stage of framing of charges,” it said.
At the same time, the bench directed that certain “firm conclusions” recorded by the High Court in its December 7, 2015 order be expunged. The High Court had observed that the accused had “questionable conduct”, “smacking of criminality” and “a fraudulent flavour”.
The High Court had made these observations while rejecting the Gandhis’ appeal against the trial court summons, issued after taking cognizance of Swamy’s criminal complaint. Swamy has levelled charges of criminal conspiracy, cheating, criminal breach of trust and misappropriation of funds by the Gandhis in taking control of the now-defunct National Herald.
The apex court said “it was not open to the High Court to record firm conclusions and that it ought to have been left to the trial court to do so after recording evidence”, and directed for expunction of “all final inferences and conclusions drawn by the High Court, on the various factual aspects in the matter”. The bench remarked it was not fair on the part of the High Court to draw conclusions since it may prejudice the trial.
On a request from lawyers of the Congress leaders, the bench allowed a plea for their exemption from personal appearance before the magistrate on February 20 and on future dates, but clarified that they can be summoned by the trial court as and when required.
“In view of the peculiar facts and circumstances of the case, especially the position occupied by the petitioners, we are of the considered view that their presence during hearing before the trial court would create more inconvenience than convenience and accordingly they shall be exempted from personal appearance,” said the order.
When Swamy said that the top court should leave it to the magistrate to take a call on their plea for exemption from personal appearance, the bench retorted that “there will be more chaos by their going to the court”, and that they would face trial and not run away.
Legally, the Gandhis have little to gain from the apex court’s order. They had sought quashing of the proceeding and a stay on the prosecution in the interim. Both these prayers have been turned down by the bench.
About expunction of the High Court’s observation, the High Court order had itself said that its observations were confined to the scope of summoning the Congress leaders and that “any observation made in this regard by the trial court or this court shall have no bearing when the case of petitioners is considered at the charge stage”. The top court took the same stand on Friday.
Moreover, getting exemption from personal appearance in the private criminal complaint case could not have been very difficult since the Gandhis have already appeared once before the magistrate, who had granted bail to them while observing that “at this stage, without evidence, charges cannot be serious in magnitude” and that the “accused are reputed persons having deep roots in society”. The next hearing in the trial court is on February 20, when Swamy has to lead the pre-charge evidence against the Gandhis and other Congress leaders.