New Delhi: Acquitting three men who had been on death row in a property-dispute murder case for almost six years, the Supreme Court Thursday asserted that the prosecution had “utterly failed” to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt, and the death sentence awarded to the accused “is totally unsustainable in law”.
A bench comprising Justices L. Nageswara Rao, B.R. Gavai and B.V. Nagarathna said it was “amazed by the manner” in which the Allahabad High Court dealt with the case, and highlighted “serious infirmities” in the trial court’s findings as well.
“While coming to the conclusion that the prosecution has failed to bring home the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt, we are at pains to observe the manner in which the present case has been dealt with by the trial court as well as by the High Court, particularly, when the trial court awarded death penalty to the accused and the High Court confirmed it,” the apex court observed.
“The trial court and the High Court were expected to exercise a greater degree of scrutiny, care and circumspection while directing the accused to be hanged till death,” it added.
The court was hearing appeals challenging the conviction and death sentence awarded to Jaikim Khan, Sajid and Momin Khan. The three were accused of murdering Momin Khan’s parents, brother and other relatives, allegedly over a property dispute. Jaikim Khan is Momin Khan’s cousin and Sajid is Jaikim’s son.
Allowing the appeals, the court found certain observations of the HC to “fall in the ambit of conjectures and surmises”.
It made similar observations about the approach taken by the trial court as well.
“All the observations are nothing but conjectures and surmises, without there being any evidentiary support to them. It is really surprising, as to how the Additional Sessions Judge could have dealt with the present case in such a casual manner when he was considering the question of life and death of four accused,” the court said.
Murder of six in UP
The prosecution had alleged that, on 23 January 2014, Jaikim Khan, Sajid, Momin Khan and Nazra, Momin’s wife, had killed Momin’s father Mausam Khan, mother Asgari, brother Shaukeen Khan, sister-in-law Shanno, 8-year-old nephew Samad, and his brother’s niece Muskan, who was 15 years old at the time.
This was allegedly done over the dispute over a brick-kiln in the Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh. Momin used to run the kiln before his father dispossessed him. Momin was then accused of getting together with his wife and two relatives to kill his father and the others.
The trial court had convicted and awarded death penalty to the four accused in January 2016. They were held guilty under Sections 302 (murder) read with Section 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code, awarding them the death sentence. They were also found guilty under provisions of the Arms Act 1878.
In May 2018, the Allahabad High Court confirmed the death sentence awarded to the three men, but acquitted Nazra. The three men then challenged the verdict in the Supreme Court.
‘Interested witnesses, insufficient reasons for death penalty’
The accused had contended that the entire case rested on the testimonies of Momin Khan’s brother Sher Khan and Sher Khan’s brother-in-law, Jaan Mohammad, who allegedly witnessed the incident from the kitchen and cattle shed of the house.
However, the high court had found their evidence to not be trustworthy and reliable to acquit Nazra, the accused pointed out. They also contended that the two men were “interested witnesses”, saying that Sher Khan was not on good terms with Momin Khan and Nazra.
The award and confirmation of death penalty was also challenged, asserting that the trial court as well as the high court had not given sufficient reasons to justify the capital punishment. They asserted that the two courts had failed to give reasons as to why there was no possibility for reformation or rehabilitation of the accused, so as to justify the death sentence.
‘No motive, mysterious arrests’
The Supreme Court Thursday said that while testimonies of interested witnesses can be relied on, they need to be “scrutinised with due care and caution”.
While scrutinising the statements of Sher Khan and Jaan Mohammad, the court referred to the site plans of the place of incident to raise doubts on the fact that they could have witnessed the assault of all six victims.
“We are therefore of the view that these two witnesses cannot be considered to be wholly reliable to base an order of conviction solely on their testimonies,” the court observed, adding that the prosecution had also failed to examine any independent witnesses to prove its case.
It went on to examine the other evidence and circumstances on which the prosecution had based their case. For instance, it highlighted the fact that the three men were arrested from a distance of half a kilometre from the place of murder, and found the arrest to be “mysterious”.
The court further opined that the recovery of bloodstained clothes in the case “also makes for an interesting reading”.
The clothes of all the accused were allegedly recovered from Momin Khan’s house, which was at a distance of 10-15 steps away from the place of the incident. The court pointed out that immediately after the incident, many villagers had gathered at the spot.
“In these circumstances, it is again a mystery as to how all the four accused fled from the spot, came back at the said spot, changed their clothes and again went away,” the court said.
It concluded that the prosecution had also “utterly failed” to prove any motive on the part of Jaikim Khan and Sajid, and had “failed to prove any strong motive” on Momin Khan’s part as well.
It, therefore, concluded that the prosecution has failed to prove the case against the accused beyond reasonable doubt, and set aside their conviction.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)