Court orders Asaram Bapu to appear via video conferencing

A trial court in Gujarat has been hearing the rape case against self-styled religious leader Asaram Bapu. The Court on Monday (29th January) ordered his appearance before them via video conferencing during the next hearing.

Additional Sessions Judge Rashida Vora on Monday allowed the application moved by the prosecution to produce Asaram in the court via videoconferencing, as he cannot be produced in person due to security concerns.

The rape victim made her deposition before the trial court on Monday. Her examination and cross-examination will be conducted between February 5 and 9 as decided by the court where Asaram will remain present via video conferencing. The trial is being conducted in-camera and details of deposition cannot be released as per the court order. This case has brought up a larger issue of delays in the judiciary that has been plaguing our legal system.

On April 12, 2017, the Apex court had asked the Gujarat trial court to expedite the recording of evidence of prosecution witnesses in the case lodged by two Surat-based sisters. These two sisters had lodged separate complaints against Asaram and his son Narayan Sai, accusing them of rape and illegal confinement while they were living in his ashram on the outskirts of Ahmedabad among other charges.

In the case in Rajasthan, a teenage girl accused him of sexual assault at his ashram in Manai village near Jodhpur. The girl, who belonged to Shahjahanapur in UP, was a student living in his ashram.

On 15th January, 2018, the Supreme Court bench comprising of Justices N V Ramana and A M Sapre who were hearing a bail plea filed by Asaram Bapu asked the Gujarat government to file a detailed progress report, seeking to know the status of the trial. Senior advocate Sidaharth Luthra and Advocate Saurabh Ajay Gupta appearing on behalf of petitioner Asaram, apprised the bench of the two cases pending against him in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The matter was then adjourned for nine weeks till the victim is examined by the trial court.

Asaram in October last year moved the Supreme Court seeking early hearing on his pending bail plea in a rape case. His counsel had stated reasons of delay by the trial court in Gujarat in recording evidence of prosecution witnesses. In August the Court had already criticised the Gujarat government for the delay in the procedure and directed them to file a progress report.

In March 2017, a Supreme Court bench comprising of Justices UU Lalit and AK Goel in a judgement titled Hussain and Anr v Union of India, asked high courts to issue directions to subordinate courts that all bail applications should normally be disposed of by judicial officers within one week. “Magisterial trials, where accused are in custody, be normally concluded within six months and sessions trials where accused are in custody be normally concluded within two years,” said the bench. The court said that efforts are to be made to dispose of all cases, which are more than five years old. The bench said that an action plan has to be put in place with targets to be achieved by judicial officers, which will be reflected in their annual confidential reports (ACRs).

The order came as the court came across two criminal cases where the accused were in custody for a number of years while their cases awaited final orders. Senior lawyer Sidharth Luthra was appointed as the amicus curiae. Asking chief justices of high courts to come up with their annual action plan and prioritise cases where the accused were in custody, the bench underlined that judicial services are “missions for serving the society”.

It is essential that victims of sexual violence and all other forms of crimes attain timely justice. Despite these directions by the Supreme Court, the judiciary is still plagued by delays as is evident from the Asaram case.