A Supreme Court judge on Friday recused from hearing a plea against removal of Special Public Prosecutor by NIA in the 2008 Malegaon blasts case, saying that he had represented certain accused in the matter.
The prosecutor had recently stirred a controversy by alleging that an officer of NIA had told her to "go soft" on the accused, a charge denied by the anti-terror agency.
“I represented certain accused in the matter," Justice U U Lalit said while recusing himself from hearing the case.
The bench, headed by Justice FMI Kalifulla, then said that "let the matter be listed before the Chief Justice of India who, in turn, will allocate it to another bench".
Senior Advocate Indira Jaising, appearing for Harsh Mander who had filed the PIL, said that she had no objection if the present bench decides to hear the matter. The court, however, declined the plea.
The PIL has accused the NDA government of trying to interfere with the functioning of the prosecutor in the case by exerting "pressure" on the prosecutor to "go soft" on the accused. It alleged that the executive was attempting to influence the judicial system.
It alleged that National Investiation Agency officials had pressured erstwhile Special Public Prosecutor in case, Rohini Salian, "presumably" under instructions from their "political masters".
The petition has said that the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is the controlling ministry of NIA, "has been allegedly trying to influence/pressurise an honest public prosecutor to go soft on the accused persons".
The petitioner has sought the apex court's intervention to ensure a fair trial as there were reasons to "credibly fear" that "executive is attempting to influence the judicial system to cave in to the pressure exerted by it in all matters, including affording protection to right-wing extremists who sympathise with its ideology".
Salian, who was SPP in the case, had alleged an NIA officer had told her to "go soft" on the accused. She also claimed the same officer had told her that she would be replaced. Salian is no longer on NIA's panel of lawyers.
The PIL sought a direction to the Centre to appoint an SPP to conduct "fair" trial and constitute a Special Investigating Team of CBI to probe alleged actions of NIA officials who allegedly pressured Salian.
The high-profile accused in the case include Lt Col S P Purohit and Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur.
The 4,000-page charge sheet had alleged that Malegaon was selected for the blasts because of its sizeable Muslim population. It named Pragya Singh Thakur, Purohit and another accused, Swami Dayanand Pandey, as the key conspirators.
The charge sheet had alleged it was Pandey who had instructed Purohit to arrange for RDX, while Pragya owned the motorcycle which was used in the blast.
Ajay Rahirkar, another accused, allegedly organised funds for the terror act, while conspiracy meetings were held at Bhonsala Military School in Nasik, according to the charge sheet.
Rakesh Dhawde, Ramesh Upadhyay, Shyamlal Sahu, Shivnarain Kalsangra, Sudhakar Chaturvedi, Jagdish Mhatre and Sameer Kulkarni were the other accused.
The blast on September 29, 2008, had left four dead and nearly 80 injured.
Image: A damaged part of a mosque hit by a blast in the 2008 Malegaon blast. Photograph: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters