New Delhi: The Gujarat high court has turned down the plea of the former state cadre IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt for suspension of his life imprisonment pronounced on July 20 by a lower court in a case of custodial death.
Bhatt, who has been lodged in Palanpur jail since September 2018 in a drug-related case, was sentenced to life imprisonment by a sessions court in Jamnagar, which held him guilty for the death of Jamjodhpur resident Prabhudas Vaishnani in November 1990.
On October 30, 1990, Vaishnani, along with 132 others, was taken into police custody in Jamjodhpur town for allegedly resorting to rioting during a country-wide bandh called by the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The bandh was to protest the arrest of BJP leader L.K. Advani during his rath yatra.
Prabhudas, then 40, was among those arrested. Bhatt was the then additional superintendent of police in Jamnagar district.
On November 18, Prabhudas died of kidney failure, leading his family to lodge an FIR against Bhatt and six other police personnel accusing them of custodial torture which affected his weak kidneys and allegedly lead to his death. Though the case remained, the state government didn’t give permission to prosecute Bhatt and others. The permission was subsequently granted.
Bhatt had also pointed fingers at prime minister Narendra Modi during investigations into the 2002 Gujarat riots, which took place during his chief ministership. The top cop was suspended by the BJP government in 2011 for absenteeism and was sacked in 2015.
On June 20 this year, acting on the complaint of Vaishnani’s family, Bhatt and another police personnel Pravinsingh Zala were pronounced guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Five other police personnel were given two-year jail terms.
Bhatt then challenged his conviction at the Gujarat high court.
On September 3 this year, high court Justice V.B. Mayani recused himself from hearing the case without citing a reason. It thereafter was placed before Justice Bela Trivedi. On September 25, Justice Trivedi rejected Bhatt’s plea.
Significantly, in the order uploaded on its website on October 7, Justice Trivedi also gave the following reasons for turning down his plea: “Scant respect for the courts” and “Scant regard for the truth”.
Justice Trivedi reportedly noted that since he was convicted for murder under Section 302 of the IPC, “the initial presumption of innocence in favour of the accused was no longer available.”
As per an Indian Express report that quoted the court order, Justice Trivedi also took note of the public prosecutor’s observations made against the accused in the high court as well as in the Supreme Court to state:
“…it appears that the applicant has scant respect for the courts and is in the habit of misusing the process of law and scandalising 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…”
Soon after the high court order, news reports from the state said that the court took “strong objection” to Bhatt’s “contention” in his appeal about the sessions court in Jamnagar and stated that they were “tantamount to scandalising the court”. Advocate B.B. Naik, appearing for Bhatt, regretted it and sought the court’s permission to remove those paragraphs based on which the court made the observation.
Naik had appealed to the court on the ground that it was “a vitiated trial”. He argued that there was no connection between the injuries caused to Vaishnani and the cause of his death. The prosecution had also failed to establish the connection.
Responding to Naik’s remarks, the court order said:
“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 about 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.”