(First published in Scroll.in on 25 November 2014.)
It is unfair, some argue, that Tarun Jit Tejpal is being hounded like a criminal, and people are ganging up against him and not even letting him speak about literature on a stage. He is accused of rape, they point out, but not convicted of it, and is as such innocent until proven guilty.
One could argue back that Tejpal had admitted his guilt on email, and while the law must take its own course, rape also needs social opprobrium. It is important that society should set an example by not letting those who violate the bodily integrity of others to go about their business as though such conduct was socially acceptable.
But when will the trial begin?
You could take your pick between those two positions, but everyone will agree that Tejpal’s innocence or guilt should be proven as soon as possible. The Tehelka staffer he allegedly victimised deserves a speedy trial, and so does he.
Tejpal was arrested on November 30 last year. Exactly a year later, the trial in his case has not even begun. After the national outrage over rape in December 2012, it seemed that such cases would be tried with a year. Fast track courts are able to finish trials in eight or nine months, as one such court in Delhi did for the December 2012 gang-rape and murder.
Tejpal and his defenders have argued from day one that the Goa police and prosecution were biased against him, because Goa was ruled by the Bhartiya Janata Party, a party that Tejpal’s Tehelka had always criticised. If the charge about political vendetta was true, then the Goa administration would have made sure his trial had been nearly over by now.
The charge-sheet in Tejpal’s case was filed in February, an additional charge-sheet filed in August. He was granted bail by the Supreme Court in July, having spent seven months in jail as an under-trial. While granting him bail, the apex court had asked the trial court in Goa to finish his trial in eight months. That is, by April 2015. That seems unlikely because the trial has not even begun. In the same breath, the Supreme Court had noted that the case has 153 witnesses, and that it might take three years for such a big trial to end.
Who benefits from a delayed trial?
Tejpal’s lawyers and those of the Goa prosecution have for months now being playing a cat-and-mouse game. Tejpal’s lawyers typically ask for some copy of evidence they say they had not yet been given, and the Goa prosecution says it is a frivolous demand, and the courts ask the evidence be given. Forensic experts are called to check why hard drives are inaccessible or if a CD given to Tejpal’s lawyers by the prosecution was indeed blank.
The prosecution says that Tejpal’s lawyers are trying their best to delay the trial. The longer the trial takes, they argue, the longer Tejpal could stay out of jail. A perfect example is their demand for the hotel’s CCTV footage. Having got the CCTV footage for November 7 and 8, 2013, when the crime allegedly took place, Tejpal’s lawyers wanted CCTV footage until November 29, for no good reason. Not that the CCTV footage for those two days forms the bedrock of the prosecution’s evidence, or that the CCTV footage shows the actual crime scene (there were no CCTV cameras inside the elevator in which the incident allegedly occurred). Such tactics have resulted in adjournment after adjournment, and the trial is nowhere in sight.
Equally, however, Tejpal could argue that the Goa prosecution is deliberately delaying the trail by not giving him all the evidence beforehand precisely because he is innocent. It is because they know their case is weak, that they want to delay the trial, he could argue. The only way to settle this, then, is for the trial to actually begin.
On December 15, the hearing of arguments will begin. This is not the trial yet. These will only be arguments about the framing of charges. This was to be on November 28, but Tejpal’s lawyers have some more problems with copies of evidence. They even want a “cloned” copy of the original hard drive that has the CCTV footage; the CD of the footage is not enough for them.
Justice delayed is justice denied
While a delayed trial potentially keeps a criminal away from justice, it also means that the alleged criminal can use his freedom from jail to influence the case, by manipulating evidence and public opinion. Already, Tejpal’s former reporter has accused that she was being threatened and slanderedand that Tejpal’s family was going around showing the CCTV footage to “everybody” to influence public opinion over the case. That is how the CCTV footage was reported in a cover story by Outlook magazine in March.
A delayed trial gives the accused in such cases ample opportunity to pursue a “settlement” with the complainant, to spread rumours and canards about motives, to gently persuade witnesses to change their minds and memories, and then there is the genuine problem of witnesses forgetting the last detail with the passage of time.
Justice delayed is justice denied. If Tejpal and his defenders want the “trial by media” to end the the “Twitter lynch mob” to spare him, they must ask and make sure that there is a speedy trial. Similarly, all those who want the Tehelka staffer to get justice must insist that the Goa prosecution hurry up with the case.