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A court order asking Delhi police to supply copies of the chargesheet to accused persons in a northeast Delhi riots case is cause for real concern. The chargesheet is the investigating officer’s report to the court reconstructing the crime and role of accused persons clubbed with statements of witnesses, other evidence and the offences booked against the accused. It becomes the basis for prosecution and defence arguments for and against the listed offences, allowing the court to frame charges and pave the way for trial.
Not supplying this important document to the accused cripples their ability to defend themselves. Surprisingly, the police failure to supply chargesheet copies to the accused Sandeep, Dinesh and Tinku happened despite earlier court orders to do so. Such missteps delay trials, which is injustice to riot victims, and even to undertrial prisoners, if ultimately acquitted after lengthy incarceration. Just as police mustn’t be hindered at the investigation stage, accused mustn’t be hobbled from putting forth their best defence either.
Activist Umar Khalid’s petition in Delhi high court accusing police of leaking the chargesheet in his case to the media, if true, upturns the “innocent until proven guilty” dictum. Accused persons have first right to know the charges against them and unproven criminal charges are best aired in court rather than the news media. As former top cop Julio Ribeiro wrote to the Delhi police commissioner, police “have a duty and an obligation to respect the Constitution and enacted laws”. Monumental failures – like the inability to nab the masked goons who ran amok at JNU a year ago – question Delhi police’s ability to enforce rule of law without fear or favour. Courts having to remind investigating officers of their duties also dents police’s credibility. Delhi police needs to exert itself more to quell this impression of shoddiness and lack of application.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.