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‘Intimidation’ or conflict? HC remark on judges’ recusal in Punjab ex-DGP case sparks debate

Former judges and advocates have objected to the reference as ‘avoidable’, saying the two judges recused from Punjab ex-DGP Sumedh Singh Saini case for personal reasons.

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Chandigarh: A recent order by a judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court dismissing the anticipatory bail petition of former Punjab DGP Sumedh Singh Saini has left many questioning a reference made in the judgment about two judges who had recused from hearing the bail petition earlier.

The 15-page order passed by Justice Fatehdeep Singh last week traces the two judges’ move to a possible attempt by the former DGP to “intimidate the judicial process”.

Former judges and advocates have objected to the reference as “avoidable”, pointing out that the two judges recused from the case possibly for personal reasons and not because they were under pressure from the petitioner.

Saini is on the run in a 29-year-old case of disappearance of a Mohali youth alleged to have been killed at the former DGP’s insistence during the militancy days in Punjab. His bail petition was first dismissed by the sessions court in Mohali, after which he had moved the high court.

In his 8 September order, Justice Fatehdeep Singh noted: “As has been argued for the State, the petitioner (Saini) happened to be a blue-eyed boy and with political patronage wielded great influence and was law unto himself and even went to the extent of intimidating judicial process which is evident from the observations of this Court in Vinod Kumar’s case by a Senior Judge of this Court followed by earlier recusal in these matters by two sitting Judges of this Court.”

Saini’s bail petition had first been listed before Justice Amol Rattan Singh who recused from hearing the case. The case was again listed before Justice Suvir Sehgal, who too refused to hear it. The case was then listed before Justice Fatehdeep Singh.

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‘Judges recused for personal reasons’

Sources in the high court said both Justice Suvir Sehgal and Justice Amol Rattan Singh had worked in the Punjab advocate general’s office for some years. They could have either appeared for Saini on behalf of the state or may have interacted with the former DGP in other police cases.

“Justice Amol Rattan Singh’s father was in the Punjab Police at a very senior position and his family would have known Saini’s. There is little doubt that the recusal was due to personal reasons,” said a senior judge of the high court, who did not wish to be named.

Justice S.D. Anand, another retired HC judge, said, “The recusal by honourable judges in the case for whatever reason cannot be the basis of the bench which is hearing the case taking a favourable or an unfavourable view in the matter. The bench’s view on the matter has to be determined on the basis of material available before it.”

Advocate Harchand Singh Bath said such a reference by one judge about the recusal of other judges had never happened before. “It is not necessary that the two judges recused because they were under pressure from the petitioner. It could have been due to personal reasons,” Bath said. “Which also leads us to reopen the debate about judges giving reasons for recusing in a case. Though they are not bound to, but had a brief reason been given by the two judges, this reference would have never come about. When no reason is given, it is open to misinterpretation.”

Judge had also referred to another case

While refusing Saini bail, Justice Singh also referred to another unrelated case faced by the former DGP, which is being investigated by the CBI and the trial is happening in New Delhi. “Moreover, as is brought to the notice of this Court that in the Trial of this case at New Delhi the petitioner has intimidated even the investigating officer of CBI forcing him to turn hostile. Since much evidence of police officials and other witnesses has come up after the decision of earlier bail application of petitioner, an urgent need arises to preserve the same from prying eyes of the petitioner, for the trial,” the judge had said.

Advocate Rohit Sood, secretary of the Punjab and Haryana High Court bar association, said recusal by judges is setting an example of high judicial morality and rigour. “To see it otherwise is unfortunate,” he said.

Advocate Baltej Singh Sidhu, a former secretary of the High Court Bar Association, said it is wrong to presume that the judges are under pressure or have been approached until the judges themselves say this while recusing either in writing or verbally in the open court. “What the order referred to was avoidable,” he said.

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