Live Mint
New Delhi
New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that trials of members of Parliament (MPs) and state legislatures accused of serious crimes should be time-bound and directed lower courts to conclude the proceedings within a year.
And if a trial court fails to complete the process within a year of framing charges, it will have to submit an explanation to the high court, an apex court bench headed by justice R.M. Lodha said. Any relaxation of the deadline will be decided by the chief justice of the high court.
Effectively, the apex court has closed the option for politicians to use delays in legal trials to hold on to public office. Last year, as part of its efforts to decriminalize politics, the apex court had ruled that convicted politicians will not be allowed to stand for elected office for a period of two years.
The apex court was hearing an item of public interest litigation (PIL) seeking to disqualify from electoral contest politicians against whom charges have been framed by courts for serious crimes. The top court said all such proceedings involving lawmakers must be conducted on a day-to-day basis.
The Supreme Court’s order is significant in the backdrop of the fact that criminalization of politics and corruption in public life are shaping up as electoral issues in the run-up to the general election. Elections to the 543-member Lok Sabha will be held in nine phases beginning 7 April and the counting of votes will take place on 16 May.
The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a not-for-profit organization that analyses elections and candidates, says 1,460 serving MPs and state legislators are facing criminal charges. ADR prepared the data based on information provided by politicians to the Election Commission before submitting themselves to the electorate.
The Supreme Court’s ruling is a “significant step” in cleansing the political system, said Trilochan Sastry, founder-member of ADR.
“Data shows clearly that the current Lok Sabha has 162 MPs with criminal cases against them. We did an analysis and found out that more than half of these MPs have an average pendancy of more than seven years. With the SC (Supreme Court) judgement. their offence would have to be established within a year,” Sastry said.
“It will also be a lot of help in cleansing the system. All those people who would be convicted will not be able to fight elections,” he added.
The PIL was filed by non-governmental organization (NGO) Public Interest Foundation, seeking a direction from the Supreme Court for speedy trials in cases involving lawmakers. The NGO contended that delayed proceedings enabled MPs and state legislators to continue to occupy their seats.
The Supreme Court’s 10 July 2013 order has led to two parliamentarians—Rasheed Masood, a Congress member of the Rajya Sabha, and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad—losing their memberships.
Masood was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment by a Delhi court for misusing his office as health minister in the 1990s to grant admission in medical colleges to students who were not eligible.
A special Central Bureau of Investigation court in Ranchi found Prasad, a former Bihar chief minister, guilty in a case dating back to the 1990s, involving embezzlement of around Rs.37 crore from the state government treasury meant for the purchase of cattle fodder.
Prasad was sentenced to five years in October last year after facing a trial that went on for 17 years. He is out on bail after appealing in a higher court.
Political observers said the Supreme Court’s order on Monday would also help bring justice to politicians who are wrongly accused of crimes.
The ruling Congress party welcomed the court’s order. “Whatever steps the Supreme Court takes in order to bring in clarity, transparency and accountability in politics is good. Whatever is good for the country is good for politicians, too,” party spokesperson Shakeel Ahmed said.
Another Congress leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the ruling will expedite trials, which “is good for a politician who has to wait for long years to clear his name if he or she is not guilty.”
The main opposition BJP said it is in favour of setting up fast-track courts to expedite trials in such cases.
“We welcome the decision of the Supreme Court because it will not only expedite action against those who are guilty, but it will also provide respite to legislators who have been falsely implicated in such cases,” said Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, vice-president of the BJP.
“MPs and MLAs (members of legislative assemblies) have to suffer because of such allegations for a long time, and this decision is be a great relief. The BJP is in favour of setting up fast-track courts to further expedite the process and the time limit should be further brought down,” Naqvi said.
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