Transfer of trial

Published : Nov 18, 2005 00:00 IST

The Supreme Court accepts the petition of the Kanchi Sankaracharya and transfers the trial in the Sankararaman murder case outside Tamil Nadu, to Pondicherry.

THE Supreme Court, on October 26, accepted the petition of Jayendra Saraswathi, the senior acharya of the Sankara Mutt in Kancheepuram, seeking the transfer of the trial in the Sankararaman murder case against him and others to a court outside Tamil Nadu. The Bench comprising Chief Justice of India R.C. Lahoti and Justice G.P. Mathur ordered the shifting of the case from the Principal Sessions Court, Chengalpattu, to the Principal District and Sessions Court, Pondicherry. Taking "into consideration the entire facts and circumstances of the case and the material on record", it said it had "no hesitation in holding that the petitioner and co-accused have a reasonable apprehension that they will not get justice in Tamil Nadu".

In its 41-page order, the Bench said that many facets of the case showed that "the state machinery in Tamil Nadu is not only taking an undue interest but is going to any extent in securing the conviction of the accused by any means and to stifle even the publication of any article or expression of dissent in the media or press, interview by journalists or persons who have held high positions in public life and are wholly unconnected with the criminal case".

The court specifically referred to the detention of the accused under the Goondas Act and the freezing of the bank accounts of the mutt. The Bench said, "Passing of the detention order [under the Goondas Act] against 16 of the co-accused, soon after the grant of bail in the present case, is a pointer to the fact that the state wanted to deprive them of any chance to secure release from custody."

The Judges said the action of the state in directing banks to freeze all the 183 accounts of the Sankara Mutt under Section 102 of the Code of Criminal Procedure affected the activities of the mutt and the trusts and endowments connected to it.

The Bench said that might deter anyone from appearing in court and giving evidence in defence of the accused.

Justice Mathur, who wrote the judgment, said, "Launching of prosecution against prominent persons who have held high political offices, and prominent journalists merely because they expressed some dissent against the arrest of the petitioner shows the attitude of the state - that it cannot tolerate any kind of dissent, which is the most cherished right in a democracy, guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution".

The Judges were also "prima facie satisfied" that a situation had arisen in the case where the lawyers engaged by the petitioner and the co-accused "cannot perform their professional duty in a proper and dignified manner on account of various hurdles created by the state machinery."

THE order has caused yet another legal setback for the prosecution - the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the State police. Earlier, SIT suffered several reverses in the Sankararaman case and cases related to it. First, the Madras High Court quashed the detention under the Goondas Act of the 15 accused, including N. Sundaresa Iyer, manager of the Sankara Mutt, and Raghu, brother of Vijayendra Saraswathi, the junior Acharya of the mutt. The court also set aside the freezing of the bank accounts of the mutt and its trusts. Justice K.P. Sivasubramanian called the SIT action illegal. Again, the court minced no words when it granted conditional bail on February 11 to Vijayendra Saraswathi in the murder case.

Sankararaman, manager in the Sri Varadharajaswamy temple in Kancheepuram, was murdered in his office on the temple premises on September 3, 2004. Jayendra Saraswathi was arrested on November 11, 2004, in connection with the case.

In March, Jayendra Saraswathi filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking the transfer of the trial outside Tamil Nadu, fearing that he would not get a fair trial as the State government was showing an "undue interest" in it. He alleged that several statements made by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who also holds the Home portfolio, after he was granted bail on January 10 "would establish that investigations are conducted under the order and directions of the Chief Minister".

Senior Advocate Fali S. Nariman, who appeared for the petitioner, said the charge-sheet was filed on Bakhrid day amidst much publicity. The holiday Magistrate had no powers to receive the charge-sheet. He could not do judicial work. He could only remand the accused to custody, Nariman argued.

Nariman alleged that even during the cross-examination of the approver, Prem Kumar (who was Kancheepuram District Superintendent of Police) was seen prompting the approver. This was against all norms of criminal jurisprudence. When K.S. Dinakaran, counsel for the senior Acharya, objected to this, the approver was again goaded to make allegations against Dinakaran. Nariman said the police were preparing a mala fide case against Jayendra Saraswathi and this was evident from the Chief Minister's statements.

Sixteen of the accused were detained under the Goondas Act. Nariman argued that this was done to deny them bail. The senior advocate pointed out that Sankararaman's widow was given a solatium of Rs.5 lakhs (by Jayalalithaa) a few days ahead of the identification parade. All this showed that the trial would not be free and fair in Tamil Nadu. So the case could be transferred to Andhra Pradesh, the Senior Advocate contended.

Senior Advocate Rajeev Dhavan who appeared for the prosecution, said nothing prevented a holiday magistrate from receiving a charge-sheet which, according to him, could not be called a judicial act. It was submitted on a court holiday because the 90-day remand period was coming to a close on January 23 (a Sunday) for the fake accused (Five persons had surrendered before a Magistrate in Chennai on October 27, 2004, claiming that they were behind the crime). It was legal and proper to file a charge-sheet on a holiday and so the case should not be transferred from Tamil Nadu, Rajeev Dhavan argued.

Shanthi Bhushan, Senior Advocate, who appeared for Ravi Subramaniam, argued that if the case was transferred, it would send a wrong signal against the judiciary in Tamil Nadu.

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