‘Voter bribery' case: Gujarat assembly speaker, former BJP MLA, Patidar stir leader get court relief

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© Provided by The Indian Express

GUJARAT ASSEMBLY Speaker Nimaben Acharya, former BJP MLA Kantilal Amrutiya and Patidar quota agitation leader Manoj Panara got relief in a case related to alleged bribing of voters at an election meeting in Morbi town during the 2009 Lok Sabha election as the district and sessions court of Morbi on Saturday set aside a trial court verdict that pronounced them guilty.

The court of additional sessions judge MK Upadhyay on Saturday allowed separate appeals filed by Acharya, Amrutiya and Panara against the trial court conviction on February 12, 2018.

“The court concurred with our submission that the prosecution had erred in interpreting the law and therefore, the trial court’s verdict convicting the accused was illegal, perverse and untenable in the eye of law and hence allowed our appeal,” Anil Desai, Acharya’s advocate, told The Indian Express.

Acharya and Amrutiya, then sitting BJP MLAs from Anjar and Morbi Assembly constituencies respectively, and Panara, then a BJP worker, were booked under Indian Penal Code sections 171-B (bribing voters), 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by a public servant) and 114 (abettor present when offence is committed) on March 25, 2009. The case was registered on the basis of a complaint filed by Arvind Patel, the assistant returning officer (ARO), Kutch Lok Sabha seat.

In his complaint, the ARO said that at a meeting in Morbi town on March 18, 2009, Acharya had promised BJP workers that if elected, the party MP would allot Rs 5 lakh grant to the polling booth that records the highest voting in favour of the party candidate. Acharya also promised that the MP would allot Rs 2 lakh and Rs1.51 lakh respectively to the booths that comes second and third, the ARO alleged.

As per the complaint, Amrutiya had promised that BJP MLAs in Kutch Parliamentary seat would allot Rs1.51 lakh to the “organisation” of the area in each Assembly

from where the party candidate gets the highest lead in LS poll. The complaint alleged that Panara had applied for permission for the event but it went beyond the officially permitted time.

The trial court in Morbi that pronounced Acharya, Amrutiya and Panara guilty of violating IPC Sections 171-B and 114 in 2018, had sentenced them to one year simple imprisonment and fined Rs 1,000 each while acquitting them of the charge under IPC Section 188. However, the court allowed the convicts’ plea for stayed operation of its judgement for 30 days so that they can approach the sessions court.

Acharya moved the Morbi district and sessions court on February 22, 2018 challenging the trial court verdict. Amrutiya and Panara, too, moved separate appeals. The sessions court subsequently stayed operation of the trial court judgement till pendency of the appeals.

On Saturday, Acharya thanked the sessions court for “doing justice” to her. “I was not even an MLA from Morbi which would have allowed me to allot my (MLA Local Area Development Fund) grant in Morbi. Nor had we promised anyone money or had made any attempt to lure voters. All that we had done is to tell our workers to encourage people to vote in large numbers. But no one is above the law and one has to go through the procedure,” Acharya told The Indian Express, adding, “The judgement has strengthened my faith in the judiciary.”

Acharya was protem speaker of Gujarat Assembly when she was convicted in February, 2018. She was elected Speaker last month after incumbent speaker Rajendra Trivedi resigned.

During the hearing of the appeals, Desai and advocates of Amrutiya and Panara contented that Acharya and Amrutiya had not addressed any “individuals” but “party booth workers of the constituency. “Even those words do not fall within the ambit of Section 171-B of the IPC so as to attract the punishment U/S. 171-E of the IPC for the offence of Bribery,” the sessions court notes the appellants as having argued.

“The prosecution never produced the VCD (video city disc) containing recording of the said event in trial court… In absence of material evidence, the prosecution’s case rested on oral testimonies of seven witnesses. But we contented that all the seven witnesses examined by the prosecution were government servants and that there was no independent witness supporting the case hence the prosecution had failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt,” Desai added.

In his judgement, judge MK Upadhyay underlined that the VCD was a vital piece of evidence but the prosecution failed to produce it. “In such a case the question arises as to why the Court should not draw an adverse inference against the Prosecution that if at all the said electronic evidence would have been produced before the Court, it would have definitely gone against the Prosecution Case… And hence inference can definitely be drawn against the Prosecution U/S. 114 of the Evidence Act,” the judgement noted.

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