HC Judge Recuses from Hearing 2020 Riots Accused’s Plea over ‘Leak’ of ‘Disclosure’ Statement

 Justice Amit Sharma of the Delhi High Court on Wednesday recused himself from hearing a petition filed by northeast Delhi riots accused, Asif Iqbal Tanha, against the alleged leak of his “disclosure statement” in a case pertaining to the “larger conspiracy” behind the communal violence that took place here in 2020.

“List before another bench subject to the orders of the Chief Justice on April 24,” said Justice Sharma.

The petition was listed for hearing before the judge after the recusal of Justice Anup Jairam Bhambhani last week.

During the proceedings, Justice Sharma asked if the matter arose from the FIR probed by the special cell of Delhi Police under the UAPA.

Lawyer Sowjhanya Shankaran, representing the petitioner, said the present case did not “arise” as such from the Delhi riots FIR but Tanha was an accused in that FIR and his purported disclosure statement was put in public domain by certain media organisations even before the charge sheet was filed and taken cognisance of.

The court was informed by special public prosecutor Amit Prasad that the charge sheet has now been filed in the case which was investigated by special cell.

Lawyer Rajat Nair, appearing for the Delhi Police, said an inquiry was carried out into the allegations of leak and a report was submitted before the court.

The court subsequently said the matter has to be sent to another judge.

On April 12, Justice Bhambhani had recused himself from hearing the matter, saying a court’s act should never have a deleterious impact on the justice system’s credibility.

Justice Bhambhani had earlier expressed his reservations on hearing the matter after the News Broadcasters and Digital Association (NBDA), with whom he had had a “past association”, filed an intervention application in the case.

He had said the court’s view must yield in favour of preserving the system’s credibility, which is derived not just from “fairness in fact”, but also from “fairness in perception”.

Tanha had moved the high court in 2020 against certain media houses disseminating his alleged admission of his guilt before cognisance was taken by the trial court.

He had objected to the “intervention” by the NBDA in the matter on grounds that the association, which was “not interested” in the issue of broadcast of the alleged disclosure statement when a complaint was made to it, had now filed the intervention application in order to ensure that the eventuality of Justice Bhambhani’s recusal “must come true”.

The NBDA had sought to intervene on grounds that the petition concerned prays for registration of FIRs against journalists, which would have ramifications, and being a well-recognised body, it thus wanted to assist the court in the matter.

Senior advocate Siddharth Aggarwal, appearing for the petitioner, had earlier asserted that there can be no “intervention” by a third person in a criminal matter and urged the court to consider the fact that the application came to be filed only when the petition, which was filed in 2020, travelled through six judges to reach before this court for adjudication.

He had also argued that the application for intervention was an “attempt to overreach the institution” after Justice Bhambhani suggested sending the plea to another judge on account of his “past association” with the NBDA.

“This is the dirty tricks department at its worst and if we do not stand up to this, I think we are making it far too easy for people to do this exercise,” Aggarwal had said.

The NBDA’s counsel had said the association was not seeking the recusal of the judge, but only intervention.

Additional Solicitor General Sanjay Jain, who appeared in the matter for the Delhi Police, had said the present case was not a “criminal matter as such” and the media organisations have a legitimate interest in its outcome.

He had further said the issue of recusal pertained to the judge’s “conscience” and “nobody has to persuade” him on that issue as there was no application for recusal from any party.

In his petition, Tanha has said he was aggrieved by various publications reporting that he has confessed to orchestrating the 2020 northeast Delhi riots and alleged that he was coerced to sign certain papers in the effective custody of police.

He has contended that the action of two media houses of placing contents from the charge sheet in the public domain has violated the programme code.

Tanha, who was arrested in May 2020, was released from jail in June 2021 after the high court granted him bail in the riots case on the larger conspiracy.

In its status report filed in the case, the police has said while the inquiry could not establish how the details of the investigation were shared with the media, no prejudice was caused to Tanha in his exercise of right to a free and fair trial.

Tanha’s counsel had earlier argued before the high court that the internal inquiry conducted by the police into the leak was an “eyewash”.

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