Cannot jail people indefinitely: SC raps CBI on Bhanwari murder case
People’s personal liberty has value and they cannot be put behind bars indefinitely just because the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is unable to conclude its trials in time, said the Supreme Court on Tuesday, as it reproached the agency for opposing bail of an accused in a murder case that involved Congress leaders from Rajasthan.
“If CBI is not able to prosecute people for years together, what are we expected to do? It is the agency which has not been able to do its job well. There is some value to people’s personal liberty. We cannot keep everyone behind bars,” observed the bench of justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Hrishikesh Roy while granting bail to the accused.
The remarks came when the court heard the bail plea of Paras Ram Vishnoi in the 2011 Bhanwari Devi murder case, in which Rajasthan’s former cabinet minister Mahipal Singh Maderna and former MLA Malkhan Singh Bishnoi were named as prime accused. CBI charged 17 people, including the Congress leaders, some of their family members and paid assassins, with the abduction and murder of Bhanwari, who was 36 at the time of death.
According to the CBI’s chargesheet, Bhanwari, a trained midwife and nurse, disappeared in September 2011 after a CD surfaced that showed Maderna in “a compromising position” with her and amid reports that she was blackmailing him with the CD. Maderna, who was then Rajasthan’s minister for water resources, was arrested in 2012 along with Bishnoi, also a Congress MLA who allegedly had an affair with Bhanwari before he introduced her to Maderna.
CBI said the two political rivals plotted together to get rid of Bhanwari after they were fed up with meeting her demands. In January 2012, nearly four months after Bhanwari’s disappearance, her mortal remains were found in a canal in Jodhpur, near a pit where her body had been set on fire.
The Rajasthan high court had in July 2020 refused to grant bail to Vishnoi, who is the brother of Bishnoi, following which Vishnoi had approached the Supreme Court. In February this year, the court asked the trial judge to expedite the trial and hear the case on a day-to-day basis.
However, on Tuesday, senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani, appearing for Vishnoi, pointed out that the trial was still going to take a lot of time to conclude in view of 16 other accused deciding to examine the defence witnesses as well.
Additional solicitor general SV Raju, representing CBI, opposed bail saying it was a sensational case and releasing one accused on bail may affect the outcome of the trial.
But the law officer’s submissions failed to cut ice with the bench that said: “You are saying it is a sensational case but you have not been able to conclude it in the last eight and a half years. A person will remain in jail not knowing when the trial will conclude and whether he is going to be convicted at all or not. We don’t agree that bail will have any impact on the outcome of the case. It is indeed a very serious matter but we cannot keep people behind bars forever.”
The bench added: “We did not want to say this but there are special courts meant only for your (CBI’s cases) and trials have been pending for the longest time there. We have come across instances where your prosecutors do not even get their own files to argue cases and borrow the files of the court.”
The court then granted bail to Vishnoi and recorded in its order: “We have no doubt that the matter in issue is a serious one and the offence is also heinous. However, we are faced with a position where the appellant, amongst other accused, has been in custody for eight and a half years... we are of the view that pending the trial we cannot keep a person in custody for an indefinite period of time.”
On July 23, another bench in the top court had pulled up CBI when it sought to get bail of another accused in this case cancelled. A bench led by justice L Nageswara Rao had noted that CBI had failed in getting one of its key witnesses to the witness box in the last eight years. It gave CBI eight weeks to get Amber Carr, a forensic expert from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to India.
Carr had examined the burnt bones recovered by CBI from the canal near Jodhpur and the agency claimed her testimony could establish that the body recovered was of Bhanwari. While CBI insisted on recording her deposition through video-conferencing, the Jodhpur trial court rejected the agency’s plea after underscoring that Carr had never specifically said that she was unable to travel to India and hence, the agency was lacking in its efforts.