The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed journalist Tarun Tejpal’s plea seeking in-camera proceedings in the Bombay High Court on an appeal challenging his acquittal in a 2013 rape case.
A bench comprising Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice P S Narasimha did not agree to the submissions of senior advocates Kapil Sibal and Amit Desai, counsel for Tejpal, that the proceedings be held in private to safeguard the reputation and privacy of the journalist.
The top court, referring to section 327 of Code of Criminal Procedure which was being cited by Tejpal’s lawyers, said ordinarily, the trial in a criminal case has to be open and the trial judge is empowered to order in-camera proceedings to ensure that the informant woman deposes “fearlessly and without any public gaze”, and this cannot be extended to an accused or male persons who are not vulnerable witnesses.
“I am an acquitted person. Prima facie, there is nothing against me. If it (hearing on appeal of Goa government against the appeal) is open then I will be subjected to media trial,” Sibal said and referred to the apex court’s verdict holding right to privacy as the fundamental right.
“The statute does not say so…The in-camera proceedings are for vulnerable witnesses or informants,” the bench said.
Section 327 of CrPC says: “The place in which any Criminal Court is held for the purpose of inquiring into or trying any offence shall be deemed to be an open court, to which the public generally may have access… provided that the presiding Judge or magistrate may, if he thinks fit, order at any stage of any inquiry into, or trial of, any particular case, that the public generally, or any particular person, shall not have access to, or be or remain in, the room or building used by the Court”.
The court, however, granted liberty to Tejpal to make a request before the high court, which is hearing the appeal of the state against his acquittal in the rape case, to conduct physical instead of virtual hearing.
Tejpal’s case in the top court saw two apex court judges– Justice U U Lalit and Justice L Nageswara Rao, both retired, recusing themselves from hearing on January 21 and 31, 2021 respectively.
The bench was to hear the appeal of Tejpal whose application for conducting an in-camera hearing of the proceedings under section 327 of the CrPC was rejected by the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court on November 24 last year.
The acquittal of the former editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine, who was accused of sexually assaulting his then-woman colleague in the lift of a five-star hotel in Goa in November 2013, by a sessions court in May 2021 was challenged in the Goa bench of the high court by the state government.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Goa government, had argued that the judgement (of acquittal of Tejpal) by the district court is in the public domain.
“Section 327 applies for the purpose of inquiring into or trying any offence. It has limited application during inquiry or trial. The appeal is something very clear. Appeals, revisions, etc are neither investigation nor inquiry nor a trial,” he had said.
In its order in May last year, the Mapusa district and sessions court had held the complainant had not shown the “kind of normative behaviour” expected from a “victim of sexual assault”.
The court had granted Tejpal the “benefit of the doubt” in the absence of corroborative evidence to support the allegations made by the complainant. Challenging Tejpal’s acquittal, the state government had said the court’s judgement was “coloured by prejudice and patriarchy”.