LE Correspondent

New Delhi, April 5, 2022: While considering cross-appeals against the judgment of the Armed Forces Tribunal, Regional Bench, Kochi, the Supreme Court has reinstated an Army Officer and acquitted him of corruption charges.

The Division Bench of Justice L. Nageswara Rao and Justice B.R.Gavai said, “…extra-judicial confession is a weak piece of evidence. Unless such a confession is found to be voluntary, trustworthy and reliable, the conviction solely on the basis of the same, without corroboration, would not be justified.”

In this case, one Criminal Appeal was filed on behalf of Union of India, challenging a part of the judgment of the Armed Forces Tribunal whereby it had set aside the he order of conviction, under Section 7 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 r/w Section 69 of the Army Act, 1950 and also the sentence of cashiering from service and suffering of rigorous imprisonment for one year passed by the General Court Martial. But the Tribunal had ordered conviction of Major R. Metri (respondent officer)  under Section 63 of the Army Act, and sentenced him to punishment of forfeiture of seniority of rank of Major and of severe reprimand.  The other Criminal Appeal was filed by the respondent-officer challenging the part of the judgment of the AFT where by his conviction was confirmed.

The factual background of this case was such that the Respondent Officer was posted as a Recruiting Medical Officer, Army Recruiting Office in Rajasthan in the year 2008 but in his course of posting, he was alleged to help certain candidates to accomplish medical fitness and also declared some of them to be medically fit within the acceptable range. Prosecution witnesses namely Major BSRK Prasad as well as Major D. Srinivas, who were also working as Recruiting Medical Officers, contacted the respondent-officer to do the same. He was alleged to do the same in Recruitment Rallies of Jodhpur, Ganganagar and  Ajmer

Consequently the respondent made a confession to one Col. Anil Singh Rathore in the presence of Col. Bharat Kumar and Col. Balraj Singh Sohi. Thereafter the respondent was told by Col., Anil Singh Rathore, to produce his confession in the form of a written statement. On July 16, 2009 the Office of Superintendent of Police interrogated the respondent-officer and others named in the FIR filed at the time of Ajmer recruitment. 

Thereafter direction was issued to initiate disciplinary proceedings against the respondent-officer along with two other officers and three Junior Commissioned Officers. Charges were framed under Section 63 of the Army Act against the Officer. Post trial, the respondent-officer being guilty of the alleged charges was directed to be cashiered from service and was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for one year.  The GOC affirmed the findings and sentence of the GCM, but remitted   the   unexpired   portion   of  the sentence   of   rigorous imprisonment.

At the outset, the Bench was unable to accept the contention urged on behalf of the Union of India that the AFT is not entitled to reappreciate the evidence. Such reappreciation of evidence is permissible to find out if any findings of the court martial are legally not sustainable due to any reason, added the Bench.

Col. Bharat Kumar, who was the Director of Army Recruiting Office at the relevant time, had stated in his examination-in-chief that during Jodhpur Recruitment Rally, the respondent-officer had come to him, totally shattered with tears in his eyes, and informed that he had received threatening calls and SMS messages from the touts seeking favours for some candidates. It was also clear from the evidences that the prosecution witnesses in question were  aware about the racket of touts in the recruitment scam. 

The finding of the AFT that, in view of the circumstances, it appeared unnatural that the respondent-officer would make a voluntary confession as many more persons might be involved in the recruitment scam and in order to find a scapegoat, the possibility of the respondent-officer being asked to make a confessional statement with an assurance that no action would be taken against him, could not be said to be an impossible view.

On the issue of confession given by the respondent-officer, the Top Court stated that the Tribunal upon perusal of the evidence of Col. Anil Singh Rathore, Col. Bharat Kumar and Col. Balraj Singh Sohi, had come to a conclusion that from the circumstances as emerged, it couldn’t be said that the confessional statement was voluntary.

Referring to the judgment of this Court in Sahadevan and another vs. State of Tamil Nadu, the Bench held that unless extra-judicial confession is found to be voluntary, trustworthy and reliable, the conviction solely on the basis of the same, without corroboration, would not be justified. The Bench also came to the conclusion that there was no corroboration at all. 

Also, according to the Bench, the respondent–officer had discharged the burden to prove, as to how the said amount of Rs 20,000 was deposited in his account and as to how the amount of Rs 65,000 was deposited in the account of his father–in–law. As such, that part of the order, which convicted the respondent-officer for the offence punishable under Section 63 of the Army Act, in was held to be unsustainable.

Considering the fact that all the three witnesses admitted that they had no knowledge if any candidate, declared fit by the respondent-officer, was subsequently found to have been medically unfit and there was no material to establish that the amount, which was deposited in the account of the respondent-officer and his father-in-law was an amount received as illegal gratification, the Top Court acquitted the officer of all the charges and directed his  reinstatement.

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