Top jurists including three former Chief Justices of India have denounced inordinate delay in starting the Godhra train burning case trial in which 85 accused are languishing in jail for over six years.
Terming it as “unexplainable” and “amounting to denial of justice,” former CJIs - PN Bhagwati, JS Verma and VN Khare strongly criticised the delay in commencement of the trial. It was an attack on personal liberties, they added.
“It is really baffling. How can the accused be kept in jail for so long without holding the trial? What if some of the accused are found to be innocent after the trial? If they are guilty, sentence them, but people can’t be confined like this,” Justice Bhagwati said.
He said since the Supreme Court decides criminal appeals within two years, in cases where the accused were in jail, “the CJI should personally look into the matter as undertrials are presumed to be innocent till proven guilty.”
A bogey of Sabarmati Express was allegedly set on fire on February 27, 2002, at Godhra, killing 58 people. The incident had triggered statewide riots in Gujarat, in which nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims were killed.
The state police had named 135 accused in the Godhra case, 85 of whom are still lodged in Ahmedabad jail. The trial is yet to start, since the Supreme Court has to decide whether it would take place in Gujarat or outside.
Another former CJI, Khare said the bail applications of the accused should have been heard by now. “Delay in criminal trial, where the accused are in jail is unexplainable. The Supreme Court has been prompt in deciding criminal appeals and in this particular case it has to decide where a free trial can be conducted, therefore there should be no reason for delay,” Justice Khare said.
Justice Verma, while refusing to comment on the merits of the case, said it was important to decide the cases promptly where the accused were behind bars for a long time. “Sensitive cases should be decided at the earliest. Delay amounts to denial of justice. In Gujarat cases, it was extremely important to decide promptly as the image of the State was at stake,” he added.
Senior Supreme Court lawyer Rajeev Dhavan said: “The delay was intolerable. In the Godhra case, there was targeting and selection of accused, and now there is a deliberate delay on the part of the state to begin the trial.”