Wednesday, December 21, 2011

MRI battlelines emerge in court 6 reserve ammo, state to stress on time lag

AMRI battlelines emerge in court 
6 reserve ammo, state to stress on time lag

Calcutta, Dec. 20: The contours of the legal battle on the AMRI tragedy have begun to crystallise with the defence keeping its powder dry for possible use in a higher court and the prosecution playing on the fear of evidence-tampering to keep the accused in custody.

The Alipore court today declined the bail petitions of the six AMRI directors and extended their stay in police lock-up till December 23, which means they will be completing the regulation 14-day custody period.

Six of the seven directors — S. K. Todi, 69, Ravi Todi,42, Prashant Goenka, 38, Manish Goenka, 37, R.S. Goenka, 65, and Dayanand Agarwal, 64, — were produced in the court this afternoon and the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Chowdhury Hefazat Karim, pronounced his judgment in the evening.

The fate of R.S. Agarwal, 67, the other arrested director who is undergoing treatment at SSKM Hospital, will be decided tomorrow after the court examines medical reports prepared by a team of doctors at the state-run hospital.

Ten lawyers appeared separately for the accused. Their main arguments revolved around the following points:

As directors, the accused cannot be held responsible for any mechanical faults that may have resulted in a tragedy

The directors cannot be charged with Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the IPC. They may be accused of negligence, which comes under Section 304A (death due to negligence). Section 304A is a lighter charge that helped reduce the punishment of the Uphaar accused. (See Metro)

All the accused are responsible persons in society and they will not leave the city

They have already spent 10 days in police custody and the police had enough time to interrogate them

They were not present at the spot at the time of the incident and they didn't do anything that led to the fire.

However, the defence did not make any reference to the detailed guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court for granting bail, following which many of those accused in the 2G scandal were allowed to leave jail, pending trial.

The Supreme Court had said personal liberty should be deprived only in the most extraordinary of circumstances, basing the guidelines on the habeas corpus principle of "safeguarding individual freedom".

Although the AMRI defence team did not raise this wider issue today, it referred to another factor the Supreme Court had mentioned.

"The trial of the case seems to be in the hands of the media…. Law should not be guided by public sentiment," said Amitava Ganguli, who represented S.K. Todi, his son Ravi and Dayanand Agarwal.

The Supreme Court had said that bail cannot be denied merely because of the sentiments of the community against the accused.

However, given the mood in Bengal after the death of at least 91 persons in the hospital fire, the defence appeared to be keeping its firepower in reserve and instead focused on nitty-gritty.

The defence team largely focused on how the FIR mentioned mechanical details such as defunct sprinklers and smoke detectors but chose to slap a graver charge (Section 304) that presumes knowledge of the event (in this case the fire).

"The directors cannot be held responsible and slapped with Section 304 if some equipment are defunct," said Ashok Mukherjee, the lawyer representing R.S. Goenka.

Perhaps to project a picture of unity, the lawyers did not draw a distinction between the roles of their clients. Although the six are directors of AMRI, not all were directly tied to the operations at the Dhakuria unit.

"They may be holding their best ammunition for their arguments in the higher courts. Probably, they are aware that given the mood of the people, no court will grant them bail at this point," said a senior lawyer.

The directors are free to approach a higher court as the lower court has already refused their bail plea twice.

But some of the lawyers representing the accused said that they were not in a position to take up the matter with a higher court for immediate relief.

"The forthcoming Christmas vacations in the Supreme Court and Calcutta High Court are the main hindrance. Vacation benches may not grant bail and may refer the cases to regular benches. So, we have no option but to wait for the higher courts to reopen after the vacation," said Atanu Roy Chowdhury, the advocate-on-record for the six accused. The Supreme Court and high court will reopen on January 2.

However, the lawyers defending the accused said they would again move bail petitions on Friday. If bail is not granted after 14-day police custody, the accused are usually sent to jails, where conditions are less inhospitable than that in a lock-up.

The prosecution, led by lawyer and Trinamul MP Kalyan Banerjee, stressed that the accused should be in custody to prevent them from tampering with evidence — a key factor that the Supreme Court suggested could be considered while deciding on bail.

"As the owners of the hospital, they are the custodians and they are liable for any untoward incident there. The investigation against the accused is not yet complete and so we need four more days. It is important to take them to the spot, which we could not fearing a law-and-order problem," Banerjee said.

Sources in Calcutta police told The Telegraph that they would continue to oppose the bail petition and pray for judicial custody which can extend up to 90 days — the ceiling for filing the chargesheet.

The police are also expected to anchor their case on the allegation that all the accused knew about the fire two hours before the fire brigade was alerted. The alleged time gap could become the fulcrum on which the prosecution's case will rest.

The police are also pinning hopes on speedy proceedings so that trial could be wrapped up at the earliest; if possible within 90 days itself — an ambitious deadline — so that the question of bail does not arise after the judicial custody period.

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