The special CBI court in Mumbai, which is hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case, has barred the media from reporting the trial proceedings, calling the case "sensational". Ironically, the gag on media appears to be more sensational.
Mumbai additional sessions judge SJ Sharma, who is presiding over the trial, passed the gag order while hearing an application filed by the defence lawyers seeking to make the proceedings "in-camera".
Now, the word sensational itself means something that causes "a state of intense public interest", which basically means that people in general want to know what is happening in the case.
The case dates back to 2005, when gangster Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kausar Bi were allegedly killed in a fake encounter jointly undertaken by Gujarat and Rajasthan police officers.
According to the CBI, which later took over the case, Sohrabuddin and his wife were abducted while on their way from Hyderabad to Sangli in Maharashtra. The Gujarat ATS initially claimed the two were terrorists plotting to kill Narendra Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat then.
Tulsi Prajapati, an accomplice of Sohrabuddin, who had witnessed the encounters was allegedly killed too by the teams a year later.
Both the cases were clubbed together and in 2012 was transferred out of Gujarat to Maharashtra after there were allegations of the government influencing the witnesses.
In Mumbai, of the 38 people accused in the case, 15 have been discharged by the court including BJP president Amit Shah. Sohrabuddin's brother had earlier challenged the discharge of Amit Shah from the case, but then suddenly withdrew his plea in 2016. This year he again moved the Bombay High Court, appealing against the discharge of some of the key accused in the case such as police officer DG Vanzara.
On November 29, the day the trail was to begin, the defence filed an application to ban day-to-day coverage of the case saying that publication of the trial proceedings "will prejudice the case of the defence/prosecution and may create security problem for the accused facing trial, the prosecution witnesses, the prosecutor as well as the defence team".
Mediapersons present in court opposed the defence's application stating that information was right of every citizen and media tells everyone what is going in the trial.
Image: Reuters photo
While judge Sharma agreed with the defence's submissions about the possibility of security problems, I want to know if this - security of accused/witnesses/defence team - is not the responsibility of the state? Security and well being of everyone including accused persons, witnesses, lawyers and even the public at large is in the hands of the state.
So who is responsible?
Can we blame media reporting alone if any of the parties concerned face any kind of security problem?
This could have been easily done by restricting the number of people who come to the court, or by asking reporters to see to it that names of witnesses are not made public and many other such steps that other courts take. With this particular ban, the court has given the message that it is okay with the state abdicating its duty.
Moreover, this case doesn't even involve classified documents of the government that are going to be produced before the court.
It’s a case of murder and the people have every right to know about the trial proceedings. This is not the first alleged fake encounter case trial. Mumbai itself has seen many such trials.
The court proceedings in the case of 2006 fake encounter of Lakhan Bhaiya were published throughout the two years that the trial went on. In that case, encounter specialist Pradeep Sharma was acquitted while 13 other cops were given life sentences. There was not a single complaint against media reports published during the trial proceedings.
Mumbai courts have seen more outrageous cases. The 26/11 terror attack trial is one such case. Even in that case the defence as well as the prosecution had demanded that the media should not be allowed to witness the trial proceedings owing to the sensitivity of the matter. However, justice ML Tahaliyani, who was conducting the trial, refused to give in saying that whenever an issue regarding national security would be discussed adequate precaution would be taken. And with that trial the entire world saw how free and fair trials are conducted.
In India, unlike our neighbouring country which has been dithering to conduct open trials against LeT chief Hafiz Saeed, our courts have not just been delivering judgments, but are also seen as being just. And by closing the door on the public - to know and see how fair trials are being conducted - the Indian judicial system too is inching closer to its Pakistani counterpart.
Journalists have decided to appeal against the gag order and are, at the moment, taking legal opinion. Let's hope the ban is revoked, and the faith in judiciary is restored.