Objection, Your Honour: Why Reassign Judge From Sohrabuddin Case?

Bombay HC’s Justice Dere, who was conducting daily hearings related to the Sohrabuddin case, has been reassigned.

Updated
India
5 min read
Justice Revati Mohite Dere, who was conducting daily hearings related to the Sohrabuddin case, has been reassigned.
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The Bombay Lawyers’ Association is seeking “urgent remedial measures” from the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court. Congress President Rahul Gandhi is tweeting “The Sohrabuddin case claims yet another Judge”. And Amit Malviya, the top guy at Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT cell is asking Rahul, “Would he also care to tell that Justice Revati Dere is sister of NCP MP, a Congress ally? #RahulWithTerrorists”.

What’s going on?

The change of assignment of Justice Revati Mohite Dere, who was hearing the applications challenging the discharge of police officers accused in the 2005 Sohrabuddin Sheikh alleged fake encounter case, is kicking up a storm.

Too caught up to read? Listen to the story:

Sends a Wrong Signal: Bombay Lawyers’ Association

On Tuesday, the Bombay Lawyers’ Association wrote to Acting Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court Justice VK Tahilramani, criticising the reassignment of Justice Dere.

This (her reassignment) is particularly intriguing considering how Justice Dere had consistently reprimanded CBI’s approach in the case.
Bombay Lawyers’ Association to the Acting Chief Justice of the Bombay HC

According to the roster of judges’ assignments that came into effect on Monday, Justice Dere, who was earlier hearing criminal revision applications, was assigned to hear bail and anticipatory-bail applications from Mumbai and Thane. Criminal revision applications have been assigned to Justice Nitin Sambre.

The letter, signed by Ahmad Abdi, President of the Bombay Lawyers’ Association, went on to say, “It is necessary here to point out that out of total 38 accused had been named in the CBI’s charges sheet, including BJP national president Amit Shah. Out of these, 15 have already been discharged from the case by the trial court. Out of 42 witnesses examined, 34 have already turned hostile.

In this background change of assignment of Justice Dere is sending wrong signal to the public at large undermining the faith of the people in the institution of Judiciary as such (sic).”

A copy of the letter from the Bombay Lawyers’ Association.
A copy of the letter from the Bombay Lawyers’ Association.
(Photo Courtesy: Bar and Bench)

Starting Again From Scratch: A Waste of Time?

The replacement of Justice Dere comes three months after she began hearing the revision petitions. For the last three weeks, she had presided over daily hearings in the matter. These petitions will now be heard from scratch by Justice NW Sambre.

Vijay Hiremath, a lawyer who has previously represented Sohrabuddin Sheikh’s brother Rubabuddin, a petitioner in the case, has criticised the reassignment of Justice Dere.

Speaking to Scroll.in, Hiremath remarked, “In this case, there have been regular hearings for three weeks and substantial arguments are over. Hearing all the arguments again would be a waste of time for everyone involved in the case”.

Justice Dere Lifted Gag Order, Criticised the CBI

Justice Dere has been critical of the CBI’s role in this case.
Justice Dere has been critical of the CBI’s role in this case.
(Photo Courtesy: Bombay High Court)

In an order on 24 January, Justice Dere had lifted the much-criticised gag order on media reportage of the proceedings in the Sohrabuddin case. In the order, she referred to the press as the “most powerful watchdog of society”.

Hearing the writ petition filed by nine journalists, she had asked, “Is there a provision under which the judge can use his power to direct the media not to publish? Can, in an absence of such power, the court pass such an order?”

She has also been highly critical of the Central Bureau of Investigation’s role in the case.

Strike One: ‘Why No Urgency?’

On 29 January, Justice Dere questioned why the CBI did not have a sense of urgency in seeking an expeditious hearing on the revision applications, especially since the trial in the special CBI court had commenced in November 2017.

As reported by Live Law, Dere’s remarks came after Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh, who is appearing for the CBI in the matter, sought an adjournment of three weeks for replying to certain questions posed by the court.

Strike Two: ‘Not Getting the Needed Assistance From the CBI’

On 12 February, as two more witnesses turned hostile in the special CBI court, Dere remarked that the court was not getting proper assistance from the CBI, questioning the agency’s sincerity regarding the cases on alleged fake encounters of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, Tulsiram Prajapati and Kausar Bi.

When ASG Singh again sought time for filing a reply to the court’s queries, Justice Dere said: “You cannot be a silent spectator. I am not getting the kind of assistance that I should have been getting from the CBI. If this is your attitude, then why are you even conducting the trial?”
Kausar Bi and Sohrabuddin Sheikh, who were killed in an alleged fake encounter by the Gujarat police in November 2005.
Kausar Bi and Sohrabuddin Sheikh, who were killed in an alleged fake encounter by the Gujarat police in November 2005.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter) 

Strike Three: ‘Do Your Duty, Protect Your Witnesses’

Not one to mince her words, Justice Dere asked:

Is it not the CBI’s responsibility to ensure that its witnesses are protected so that they can depose against the accused fearlessly? Considering that several witnesses have turned hostile before the special CBI court, are you providing any protection to them? Your responsibility does not end simply at filing the charge sheet. It is your duty to protect your witnesses.

Sheikh and Kausar Bi were killed in an alleged fake encounter by the Gujarat police in November 2005, while Prajapati was gunned down in another alleged stage-managed gunfight by the Gujarat and Rajasthan police in December 2006.

Justice Gavai and the Other Objection

In their letter, the Bombay Lawyers’ Association also raised an objection against Justice BR Gavai being assigned to hear the PIL seeking directions to the CBI to challenge BJP President Amit Shah’s discharge order.

It is matter of record the Justice Gavai along with Justice Shukre has gone to press to declare that there was nothing suspicious about death of CBI Judge BH Loya. This matter is already pending before Hon’ble Supreme Court and our PIL filed in Bombay High Court has been transferred to Supreme Court (sic). 
Bombay Lawyers’ Association to the Chief Justice of the Bombay HC
The second page of the letter from the Bombay Lawyers’ Association.
The second page of the letter from the Bombay Lawyers’ Association.
(Photo Courtesy: Bar and Bench)

The Petitions

Three of the petitions being heard by Justice Dere challenged the discharge of former DIG Dahyabhai Vanzara, former SP Rajkumar Pandian, and Rajasthan IPS officer Dinesh MN. The petitions had been filed by Rubabuddin Sheikh, Sohrabuddin’s brother.

Dere was also hearing two petitions filed by the CBI, challenging the discharge of former Gujarat IPS officer NK Amin and Rajasthan police constable Dalpat Singh Rathod.

These five officers feature on the list of 15 individuals who were let off by the special CBI court on grounds of insufficient evidence.

On Vanzara, the court had said, "There is no prima-facie evidence against Vanzara to connect him to the abduction and killing of Sohrabuddin, his wife Kausar Bi and Tulsi Prajapati, let alone to show him as one of the main conspirators”.

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