A senior prosecutor of the city handling trials, including those in the Sakinaka rape case and the alleged custodial death of Manjula Shetye in Byculla jail, has stepped down from all cases citing Covid-19 and lack of safety protocols in the Mumbai city civil and district sessions court during the pandemic. Vidya Kasle, who was appointed special public prosecutor by the state government in seven cases, has sent her resignation to the law and judiciary department expanding on the reasons behind her decision.
In her resignation sent to the department last week, Kasle, a senior citizen, said she appeared before the court over two weeks ago and found that distancing norms were not being followed. “There was no semblance of social distancing in courtrooms, no sanitisers. Considering the number of ongoing trials I will be required to attend, it could mean attending court daily. It is not that I cannot handle the cases, but given these circumstances of an ongoing pandemic with the number of cases on the rise again, it will be a risk to my health and life,” Kasle said.
Among cases being handled by the special public prosecutor is the ongoing trial of six jail staffers facing charges of murdering a convict inside Byculla women’s jail in 2017. The trial is yet to resume after the lockdown. The court is, at present, hearing bail applications of the accused. The second major case in which Kasle is representing the state is the alleged rape of a 29-year-old woman by an assistant inspector inside a police station in Sakinaka in 2015. Police had chargesheeted nine persons in the case, including three police personnel. Before lockdown, the deposition of the victim was underway in the trial.
Kasle said in some of the cases, requests made on behalf of her by police to allow her to attend the hearing through videoconferencing were not permitted by the court. She said since she did not want to pick and choose some cases and step down from others, she took a decision to resign from all. She also said while standard operating procedures (SOP) were put in place for the functioning of courts, they were not being implemented properly.
On Wednesday, in the hearing in the Shetye case, the court said while police were informed about the prosecutor’s resignation, the regular public prosecutor of the court has not received any instruction to appear on her behalf, adjourning it to next week.
In June, the Bombay High Court issued an SOP recommending subordinate courts to record evidence through videoconferencing in cases where both parties agree and substantial part of the trial has been completed. Among issues raised by defence lawyers with regard to this was lack of infrastructure and technical assistance in trial courts to conduct deposition of key witnesses. The accused continue to be produced before the court through videoconferencing from jails. While most trials have not resumed yet, in some cases witnesses remain physically present for recording evidence.
In a meeting on Wednesday in the High Court with representation of Bombay Bar Association, it was decided this protocol at trial courts will continue as of now.
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