NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Monday asked the Uttar Pradesh government as to how long Ashish Mishra, son of Union minister Ajay Kumar Mishra, can be kept in custody, and directed the sessions court to specify the tentative time schedule for concluding the trial in the case of mowing down of protesting farmers in October 2021 in Lakhimpur Kheri.
The top court also asked the Uttar Pradesh government, which opposed the bail plea of Ashish Mishra terming the offence as “very grave”, to file an affidavit with regard to the status of the second case lodged over the killing of three occupants of the SUV, which allegedly mowed down the farmers.
A bench of Justices Surya Kant and Krishna Murari said it needs to balance the interest of all the parties including the accused, the victims and society at large.
“Question is how long can we keep him (Ashish Mishra) in custody. We have to see that the accused, who is inside the jail for over one year, also has rights. Now the charge sheet has been filed and charges have been framed. The victims and witnesses also have their rights. Even society also has interest in the case. Now, we have to balance all the rights in the case,” it said.
The bench also asked the Additional District and Sessions judge hearing the second case, related to the killing of the occupants of the car, to consider the desirability of framing charges.
It asked the Registrar (judicial) of the apex court to write to the Additional Sessions Judge, Lakhimpur Kheri, to indicate the time schedule for concluding the trial in the case, keeping in mind other pending cases and already prioritised cases with him.
“He has been inside the jail on our orders. We cannot keep him indefinitely but the question is at what stage should we consider his bail,” the bench told Additional Advocate General Garima Prashad, appearing for the Uttar Pradesh government.
Prashad said the charges against him are “very grave” and the charge sheet was filed by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) constituted by the apex court after an elaborate probe.
The bench pointed out since there are 212 witnesses the trial is going to take time.
Prashad said Mishra’s discharge application has been dismissed, the charges have been framed by the sessions court and the trial is to commence from December 16.
“We have given protection to all the key witnesses in the case,” she said.
The bench said it was a good step and the state should also provide security to any other vulnerable witnesses in the case, if they come forward during the trial.
At the outset, senior advocates Mukul Rohatgi and Ranjit Kumar, appearing for Ashish Mishra, said at the time of the incident, where an SUV mowed down the protesting farmers, the accused was not on the spot but present at a wrestling ground where senior UP ministers were to come.
“There are photographs of him at the wrestling ground, mobile phone locations of the time when the incident has taken place. He was not in the driving seat and another co-accused was seen coming out of the vehicle,” he said.
The bench said it will not go into the merits of the case and it is for the trial court to see Mishra’s defence of alibi and whether it was a case of section 304 (culpable homicide) or 307 (attempt to murder) of the IPC.
Senior advocate Dushyant Dave, appearing for the victims, said it is a settled principle that when the trial court and the high court have denied bail, the top court will not interfere with the concurrent decisions.
The bench told Dave, “This will be a very dangerous proposition. Every day in and out we are granting bail to those who have been denied bail by the high court or the trial court.”
“You see, problem is we have to balance the rights of everyone. At what stage we should intervene is the question. There are over 200 witnesses and trial is going to take time. Trial cannot happen on day to day basis. We only want that fair trial should not be compromised and witnesses or victims can depose freely, without any fear or coercion,” the bench said.
Dave said the accused are very influential people and there are hundreds of ways to threaten the witnesses or victim families.
The bench has posted the matter for next hearing on January 11.
On December 6, the trial court had framed charges against Ashish Mishra and 12 others for murder, criminal conspiracy and related offences in the case of mowing down of protesting farmers in October 2021 in Lakhimpur Kheri, paving the way for the start of the trial.
A total of 13 accused, including Ashish Mishra, have been charged under IPC sections 147 and 148 related to rioting, 149 (unlawful assembly), 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 326 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means), 427 (mischief) and 120B (punishment for criminal conspiracy), and section 177 of the Motor Vehicle Act.
The other 12 accused are Ankit Das, Nandan Singh Bisht, Latif Kale, Satyam alias Satya Prakash Tripathi, Shekhar Bharti, Sumit Jaiswal, Ashish Pandey, Lavkush Rana, Shishu Pal, Ullas Kumar alias Mohit Trivedi, Rinku Rana and Dharmendra Banjara. All of them are in jail.
On October 3, 2021, eight people were killed in Tikunia in Lakhimpur Kheri district during violence that erupted when farmers were protesting against the then Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya’s visit to the area.
Four farmers were mowed down by an SUV, in which Ashish Mishra was seated, according to the Uttar Pradesh Police FIR.
Following the incident, the driver and two BJP workers were allegedly lynched by angry farmers. A journalist also died in the violence. (PTI)