The Supreme Court on Monday said nobody except the accused, victims’ representatives and their lawyers shall be present in the court conducting the trial in the Lakhimpur Kheri violence cases in which Union minister Ajay Kumar Mishra’s son Ashish is among those facing prosecution.
The apex court order came after the victims’ lawyer claimed that a large number of supporters of Ashish Mishra were usually present during trial court proceedings creating an “intimidatory atmosphere”, but the charge was denied by the defence lawyer who claimed that there were more people from the victims’ side and suggested in-camera proceedings.
The apex court said it was passing the order to ensure that trial proceedings in the sessions court in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh are conducted smoothly.
“With a view to ensure that trial proceedings are conducted smoothly and no impediment is caused by anyone, it is directed that the accused persons in both the FIRs and one representative of the victim or complainant are permitted to attend the court proceedings along with their respective counsel,” a bench of justices Surya Kant and J K Maheshwari said.
The bench also perused a February 7 letter sent by the first additional district and sessions judge, Lakhimpur Kheri, and said, “We appreciate that the presiding officer has taken prompt and necessary action to ensure summoned witnesses remain present in court”.
It posted the matter on March 14, the date already fixed.
During the hearing, advocate Prashant Bhushan, representing the victim families in the case against Ashish, said summonses to witnesses were reaching a day after the date of proceedings.
He said there was an order of the apex court that the accused should not directly or indirectly try to influence the witnesses.
“I am told that a large number of their supporters come inside the courtroom and this creates a kind of intimidatory atmosphere. I don’t know how it can be dealt with, I am just flagging it,” Bhushan submitted.
Senior advocate Siddhartha Dave, representing Ashish Mishra, said there were more supporters of the other side in the trial court than the supporters of the accused.
He submitted that the top court may order in-camera proceedings in the trial court as allegations of influencing witnesses or tampering with evidence are levelled against them repeatedly.
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“I am an accused and I am saying do it in-camera and protect me from these allegations. They want media publicity to go on,” Dave submitted.
The apex court had, on January 25, granted eight-week interim bail to Ashish Mishra, who was allegedly involved in the 2021 violence in Lakhimpur Kheri which claimed eight lives, and directed him to leave Uttar Pradesh within one week of his release from jail.
The apex court, while observing that it was issuing certain interim directions in furtherance of interest of justice and in a way on an “experimental basis” to adjudge as to whether there is any substance in the apprehensions expressed on behalf of the state and the informant, had said Ashish shall not stay either in Uttar Pradesh or Delhi during the period of interim bail.
It had noted that while the State’s counsel had contested the prayer for grant of bail on the ground that a strong prima facie case has been made out against Ashish, the advocate representing the informant had contended that he commanded “tremendous influence” in the jurisdiction where the incident had occurred.
The top court had exercised its “suo-moto constitutional powers” and directed that four accused — Guruwinder Singh, Kamaljeet Singh, Gurupreet Singh and Vichitra Singh — who were arrested in connection with a separate FIR lodged over the killing of three occupants of the SUV which allegedly mowed down farmers there be released on interim bail till further orders.
It had said any attempt made by Ashish Mishra, his family or supporters to influence or threaten the witnesses, directly or indirectly, shall entail cancellation of interim bail.
On October 3, 2021, eight people were killed in Lakhimpur Kheri district’s Tikunia where violence erupted when farmers were protesting against the then deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya’s visit to the area.
According to the Uttar Pradesh Police FIR in the case, four farmers were mowed down by an SUV in which Ashish Mishtra was seated.
Following the incident, the driver of the SUV and two BJP workers were allegedly lynched by angry farmers. A journalist also died in the violence.
The Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court had on July 26 last year rejected Ashish Mishra’s bail plea. He had challenged the high court’s order in the apex court.
On December 6 last year, the trial court had framed charges against Ashish Mishra and 12 others for the alleged offences of murder, criminal conspiracy and other penal laws in the case of the death of the four protesting farmers, paving the way for the start of the trial.