Bhatt’s plea dismissed. ‘Scant Respect for Courts’: Gujarat HC.

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Bhatt’s plea was dismissed by the Gujarat High Court on October 07, 2019. He has been implicated in a 23-year-old case of custodial torture. His conviction is seen in the backdrop of him taking a public stand against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his involvement in the 2002 Gujarat Riots. 

Factual Background: 

Sanjeev Bhatt was the serving Deputy Commissioner in-charge of Internal Security at the State Intelligence Bureau, Gujarat in 2002 when the state of communal violence broke out. Bhatt sparked off controversy when he claimed that at a high-level meeting on the night of 27 February 2002 at the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s official residence in Gandhinagar, senior police officials were told to let people vent their anger for 72 hours and avenge the Godhra train burning incident. The Quint reported that he was one of the first officers to report that 27 February 2002, Godhra train burning incident could spark off possible retaliatory violence. Post-Godhra violence there were discussions at multiple levels regarding the inaction by the state government pointing towards their complicity to the brutal aftermath. 

In 2006, one Zakia Jafri, widow of Gulbarg Jafri (killed in the massacre) filed a complaint, of which Bhatt was the chief witness. Adding to the complaint, Bhatt also moved the Supreme Court to file a detailed affidavit producing pieces of evidence towards state complicity including the then Chief Minister, Shri. Narendra Modi and two times serving Prime Minister of India. Bhatt also released details about a high-level meeting held on 27th February 2002 at the residence of Chief Minister Narendra Modi in Gandhinagar, where there were clear directions from the head of the state ‘to let people (Hindus) vent their anger for 72 hours and avenge the Godhra train burning incident.

Arrest of Sanjeev Bhatt:

However, despite his depositions before the Justice Nanavati Committee, the Special Investigation Team appointed by the Supreme Court, dismissed his allegations. State functionaries and Shri. Narendra Modi was given a clean chit by the filling of a closure report in the case. The case has not closed though, as the closure report has been challenged in the Gujrat High Court. In 2015, Bhatt’s tenure as a decorated police officer, came to a sudden end when he received his letter of termination for ‘Unauthorised Absence’. It was clear that the State machinery had begun to take Bhatt down, as the departmental inquiries held for his termination passed ex-parte orders, leaving no chance for him to present his case. In September 2015 Bhatt was arrested by the Crime Investigation Department on the account of planting drugs in order to arrest a man and custodial torture in a 23 years old case.

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There have been oppositions to his arrest, as the same if reflective of his bold testimonies against the government in power. His wife has come on record to testify that Prabhudad Vaishnani, the person who is said to have died of custodial torture, was never in Bhatt’s custody. In June 2019 a Jamnagar court sentenced Sanjiv Bhatt under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code for murder, relating to the death of a person in police custody in 1990, punishing him with life imprisonment.

Bhatt moved the High Court against the said orders on the premise that only 32 out of 300 witnesses of the prosecution were examined, wherein three of his chief witnesses weren’t called for. However, the Gujarat High Court dismissed his plea to summon the said witnesses. The case reached the Supreme Court for the examination of remaining witnesses, listed urgently before a vacation bench but dismissed for lack of merits. 

Since then, serving the conviction in the drug case, as pronounced by a session’s court in Jamnagar, Bhatt has been lodged in the Palanpur Jail. Bhatt was held guilty for the death of then undertrial, Prabhudas Vaishnani, who is a resident of Jamjodhupur. Along with Bhatt, another personnel, Pravinsingh Zala has been sentenced to life, while another 5 personnel have been sentenced to serve two years jail term. In a recent decision by the Gujarat High Court, it has refused to entertain and dismissed the play for the suspension of the said sentence of life imprisonment, implicating him in a case of custodial torture and death.

Who is Prabhudas Vaishnani? 

Prabhudas came to police custody on October 30, 1990, along with 40 other suspects. The charges alleged related to resorting to rioting during a BJP and Vishwa Hindu Parishad-led countrywide bandh. The agitation in the name of the bandh was protesting the arrest of L.K.Advani, a BJP leader during his rath yatra. Prabhudas and his youngest brother Rameshchandra were arrested and booked under the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA). When Prabhudas was taken into custody along with others, Bhatt was enjoying the post of additional superintendent of police in district Jamnagar. 

Post his release on 19 November, Pradbhudas died owing to chronic kidney failure. His family went ahead and made a case of custodial torture and death naming Bhatt along with six other police officers. However, since then the case was not prosecuted upon, until recently when the government granted permission to prosecute. The said prosecution ultimately resulted in the conviction of all alleged police personnel. 

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Bhatt’s allegation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the case thereafter: 

It has served subsequent news cycles that the case is one of the false implications of Bhatt due to his allegations on the two times serving prime minister, Mr. Narendra Modi. He had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court alleging that Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, played an extensive part in the massacre of 2002 anti-Muslim in the state of Gujarat. He had alleged Modi to have ordered the bloodbath that took place back in 2002, giving the police a free-hand.

The riots are often attributed to police deliberately not controlling Hindu agitators targeting the Muslim population living in the state. Following the said allegation, he was ransacked unusually for ‘unauthorized absence’, by the BJP government in 2015.

What remains more shocking is that as per the records maintained and collected by the National Crime Records Bureau from 2001 up till 2016, not a single conviction had taken place in Gujarat for custodial death despite there being 180 cases. 

 

Here is a brief timeline of what transpired thereafter: 

June 20, 2019- Sessions Court, Jamnagar pronounced Bhatt and one another guilty of custodial torture sentencing both to life imprisonment. The other five personnel accused in this case were given to serve a two-year jail term.

July 25, 2019- Bhatt, was a former senior IPS officer and whistle-blower in the Gujarat Riots case against Narendra Modi s moved the Gujarat high court against his conviction by sessions court in a 29-year-old custodial death case. His case was put for a brief hearing before a division bench of Justices Harsha Devani and V.B. Mayani admitted Bhatt’s appeal. 

September 03, 2019- Justice V.B.Mayani was overhearing his matter sharing the bench with another, recused himself from hearing his case without any due justification for the same. Justice Mayani was then replaced by Justice Bela Trivedi. 

September 25, 2019- Sanjeev Bhatt’s plea was dismissed by the division bench of Gujarat High Court. 

Bhatt’s plea dismissed by a Division Bench in Gujarat High Court

Via order dated October 07, 2019 Justice Trivedi dismissed the plea of Bhatt to suspend the sentence of life imprisonment for the reasons of non-availability of presumption of innocence for the accused, since he has already been convicted under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for murder. The court also remarked saying that the accused is in ‘a habit of musing the process of law and scandalizing the court’. An excerpt of the court proceeding has been reproduced as under:

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 “…it appears that the applicant has scant respect for the courts and is in the habit of misusing the process of law and scandalizing the court. Some of the observations made by the Supreme Court in the proceedings filed by the applicant substantiates the submissions made by Mr. Amin, more particularly in the case of Sanjiv Rajendra Bhatt vs Union of India… in which the court had observed… that the petitioner had made a deliberate attempt to mislead the court… Even this court… had observed that the applicant had scant regards for the truth…thus the plea is dismissed”

For the State of Gujarat appeared the public prosecutor Mitesh Amin and Advocate B.B. Naik for Sanjeev Bhatt. Naik strongly argued that Bhatt has been falsely implicated as there is no reasonable nexus between the injuries caused to deceased Vaishani and the reason for this death as stated in the medical reports. However, the court refused to reply on the argument made by Naik, stating as under: 

 “Whether the trial had vitiated or not on account of non-examination of some of the witnesses by the prosecution or on account of other lapses would be the issues to be considered at the time of final hearing of the appeal. At this juncture, the court, after having considered the evidence on record as well as the findings recorded by the sessions court, is prima facie satisfied with the conviction of the applicant under Section 302 of IPC, and in absence of any exceptional case made out by the applicant, the present application does not deserve any further consideration. The application for suspension of sentence, therefore, is dismissed.”

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