HC ex-judge Abhay Thipsay slams conduct of Sohrabuddin case

Former Bombay High Court judge Abhay M Thipsay has made some scathing remarks on the way the Sohrabuddin Shaikh encounter case has been handled, saying the way several high-profile accused were discharged, the ''absurd'' inconsistencies in the legal process, signs of witnesses being put under pressure or threat, and evidence of ''mischief'' all point to the ''failure of justice and of the justice delivery system''.

Justice Thipsay had ruled on four bail applications in the case. In his first interview since he retired as judge of the Allahabad High Court in March 2017, he told The Indian Express the Bombay High Court must exercise its powers of revision, even suo motu if necessary, to relook the case.

Describing as ''absurd'' the inconsistencies he found in orders passed by the Special CBI Court currently hearing the case in Mumbai, Thipsay said the court believed there was an abduction and a staged encounter, but still discharged senior police officers.

Several aspects of the case raise suspicion, he said, and are ''contrary to common sense''.

A number of accused were discharged on the observation that the evidence against them was weak, but on the same evidence, the trial court found there was a case for proceeding against some of the accused. ''The version of the same witness, as reflected in police statements, has been believed in the case of some accused and disbelieved in respect of others discharged,'' said Justice Thipsay.

''You believe that he (Shaikh) was abducted. You also believe that it was a fake encounter. You also believe that he was illegally kept in the farmhouse. And you don't believe that Vanzara (then Deputy Inspector General of Police, Gujarat), Dinesh M N (then Rajasthan Superintendent of Police), or Rajkumar Pandiyan (then Gujarat SP) are involved in that. How could the constabulary or inspector-level officers have any contact with him (Shaikh)? You mean to say a sub-inspector abducted him (Shaikh) from Hyderabad and brought him to a different state? And on the basis of the same material, you say that there is no case against the SPs (Pandiyan, Dinesh). So the suspicion is that superior officers have been treated differently,'' he said.

''These orders need to be scrutinised properly before the appropriate fora, and the High Court should look into it,'' he said. ''It is unusual that bail is denied to a number of accused for several years and then the court holds that there is no prima facie case against those accused. Lower level officers are not discharged but senior officers are discharged though the nature of material against them is the same,'' said Justice Thipsay.

He said that he ''started reflecting on the case owing to the controversy'' related to the death in 2014 of CBI judge B H Loya who was hearing the matter.

Fifteen of the 38 accused have been discharged in the case, which is being heard by the CBI court in Mumbai. Those discharged include Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, who was then Gujarat minister of state for home affairs, and Gulab Chand Katariya, then Rajasthan home minister, apart from Vanzara and Pandiyan.

With 30 witnesses in the ongoing trial of 22 accused turning hostile since November 2017, Justice Thipsay said, ''There are many unnatural things that I saw when I started looking at how discharge orders have been passed in the case.''

As a judge of the Bombay High Court, Justice Thipsay heard the bail applications of Vanzara and M Parmar, former DSP of Gujarat's Anti-Terrorism Squad; Narendra K Amin, DySP, Ahmedabad Crime Branch; and B R Chaubey, sub-inspector, Gujarat Police. He rejected two and granted bail to Amin in 2013 and Vanzara in 2014.

Justice Thipsay said he was reluctant to grant bail to Vanzara but the Supreme Court had already granted bail to other accused in the case on grounds of prolonged incarceration, and a departure from the view of the apex court would not be a proper exercise of judicial discretion or discipline.

''I was very uneasy because I knew the facts of the case roughly as I had dealt with bail applications of some of the accused. Fifteen of the 38 accused had been discharged. I was not very comfortable in granting bail to Vanzara but I had to grant it because of a Supreme Court order granting bail to co-accused Rajkumar Pandiyan and (B R) Chaubey. However, in my order, I made it clear that there was a prima facie case against him (Vanzara). That is why I am particularly pained because they (trial court) did not pay heed to that. I said there is a prima facie case and that there is a very heinous crime also,'' he said.

What should be examined, said Justice Thipsay, is the transfer of special CBI court judge J T Utpat, Loya's predecessor, in June 2014 and Loya's appointment as special CBI court judge, after being appointed on the registry of the Bombay High Court.

Loya, an Additional Sessions judge since 2011, was appointed as Registrar Judicial II in the Bombay High Court in February 2014. In four months, he was transferred back to the sessions court and appointed special CBI court judge presiding over the Sohrabuddin case.

''This was too short a period. When a person is appointed in the registry you don't have plans of immediately sending him back. This is an unusual thing… Before that Utpat was transferred abruptly. Why do I say abruptly? Transfers are made generally after three years unless there are extraordinary circumstances. He had not completed three years,'' he said.

Justice Thipsay described the media gag order issued last November by Special CBI Judge S J Sharma presiding over the trial as ''very surprising'' - the order was struck down by the Bombay High Court.

''Usually, a person who is facing prosecution feels safer if it is done in public gaze. Open trial is the best sort of protection for an accused … here is a case in which the accused made an application praying to the court that the media be prohibited from publishing proceedings of the case. The trial court had passed such an order which was subsequently struck down by the High Court. The question is how could the accused feel safe when the public would not know what was happening in the courtroom? That is very surprising, according to me,'' he said.