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Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Amaravati land deal FIR: On Andhra plea, SC lifts HC media gag order

The Andhra Pradesh High Court had restrained the media from reporting an FIR filed by the AP anti-corruption bureau against a former legal officer and others over land purchase in Amaravati.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
Updated: November 26, 2020 4:22:07 am
A 2019 pic of an unfinished government building in Amaravati.

The Supreme Court Wednesday stayed the Andhra Pradesh High Court order restraining the media from reporting the FIR registered by the state police Anti-Corruption Bureau in connection with alleged irregularities in land dealings in Amaravati.

A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, R Subhash Reddy and M R Shah ordered part stay of the September 15 High Court order while hearing a plea by the Andhra Pradesh government which had challenged the order. It directed that the matter be listed for hearing again in the last week of January 2021.

On October 6, Chief Minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy, in a letter to Chief Justice of India S A Bobde, had alleged that Supreme Court judge Justice N V Ramana, who is next in line to be CJI, had been “influencing the sittings of the (Andhra Pradesh) High Court including the roster of few Honourable Judges”.

Reddy’s letter, which also pointed fingers at some of the judges of the HC, alleged judicial impropriety on the part of Justice Ramana and raised questions on certain land transactions, allegedly involving members of his family, in Amaravati before it was declared the site for the new capital of Andhra Pradesh.

On October 17, Justice Ramana said, “it is an important quality for a judge to withstand all pressures and odds and to stand up bravely against all obstacles” and that a “vibrant and independent judiciary… is required in the current times”.

On November 2, Attorney General K K Venugopal noted that the “timing” of Reddy’s letter to the CJI and the state government’s move to make it public in the wake of Justice Ramana’s order to expedite trial in cases against legislators, “could certainly be said to be suspect”. But Venugopal declined consent to initiate proceedings against Reddy for criminal contempt of the Supreme Court.

Hearing the Andhra Pradesh government’s petition Wednesday, the bench issued notice and said: “List in the last week of January 2021. In the meantime, directions issued in the impugned order dated 15.09.2020 to the extent of following shall remain stayed – ‘It is further directed that the news in regard to registration of FIR or in the context of the said FIR shall not be made public in any electronic, print or social media, to foist the office of a former Advocate General and also with respect to the other alleged accused persons’.”

Hearing a writ petition by the state’s former Advocate General Dammalapati Srinivas and others, the High Court, in an interim order on September 15, had also stayed the investigation of the FIR. This stay continues to remain in operation.

The Supreme Court bench also asked the High Court not to decide the writ petition pending before it while the top court is hearing the matter.

Appearing for the Andhra Pradesh government, Senior Advocate Rajeev Dhavan said the writ petition was filed before the High Court as soon as the enquiry was ordered, and was decided the same day.

The interim relief, he contended, was granted after the petitioner claimed that the government was running the state in utter disregard of the Constitution. Dhavan wondered whether relief could be granted in a criminal case on such grounds.

“This (petition before the High Court) is an entirely political writ petition against the Chief Minister. It is not based on facts but cites reliable sources which too are not revealed,” he said.

Referring to details of the FIR, he asked whether an investigation was not called for. “Is there something which needs to be investigated? This petition was decided at 6.30 pm for the sake of urgency,” he said.

The bench said the matter needs consideration and it will issue notice.

Explaining the reason for the High Court taking up the matter urgently, Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Srinivas, referred to the state writing to the CBI against the former Advocate General and said this was done because the former law officer had appeared in 25 corruption cases against the present Chief Minister.

“I had urged the HC to hear it immediately as it tarnished the reputation of a lawyer with a standing of 30 years,” he said. “My client is targeted… This case reeks of malafide. This is worse than Emergency… My reputation is being damaged.”

Senior Advocate Harish Salve urged the bench to allow the High Court to decide the matter and said the plea by the state government in the top court is a “vote of no-confidence against the HC and its Chief Justice”.

“Instead of requesting HC to vacate its interim order, they came here… Let them go back to the HC. The HC should hear it first,” he said.

Salve quoted Dhavan speaking about ‘regime revenge’ once and said “that’s exactly what is happening here. This man appeared against the present CM because of which all this has been happening”.

He said the Reddy government is using its sympathisers to intimidate judges of the High Court through social media. The HC had ordered a CBI inquiry into the matter, Salve pointed out, adding that he was appearing for WhatsApp in the case.

On the allegations of irregularities in land dealings in Amaravati, the site of the new capital of Andhra Pradesh, Salve said details of the new capital were already out in newspapers as early as June 2014.

Despite the details being public, the former Advocate General was being accused of using the information, letters were being written to the Income Tax and CBI and released to the media, he said.

Responding to this, Dhavan said the state does not have anything against the High Court.

He said he had used the expression ‘regime revenge’ when he appeared in a bail matter for the late J Jayalalithaa. Agreeing that ‘regime revenge’ does take place, he asked whether it means that a government cannot investigate any offence which allegedly took place under a previous government.

Referring to the contention that the CBI had not initiated any process though the state wrote to it, Dhavan asked “does it mean investigation can be stopped?… How can an investigation be stopped at the threshold?”. The FIR, he said, discloses facts that need to be investigated.

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