New Delhi, Sep 16:
The Supreme Court Tuesday took a strong view of the army letting off its officers with light punishment after they were held guilty of selling their weapons to arms dealers without taking required permission.
Noting that the army officers after getting weapons from ordnance depot Jabalpur sold them to the dealers, the apex court bench of Justice H.L. Dattu, Justice S.A. Bobde and Justice Abhay Manohar Sapre said an army officer is supposed to uphold the “highest moral standards” and could not be seen buying from the army and selling it in the market.
The apex court said the punishment should be commensurate to the seriousness of the offence alleged against the army officers.
“Why not (impose) maximum punishment in such cases,” Justice Dattu asked.
He said the apex court has the highest regard for the armed forces for defending our borders including what they have done in rescue and relief operations being undertaken in Jammu and Kashmir.
“When you purchase a NSP (Non Service Pattern) weapon, another officer waiting in queue is deprived of it. Then you go and sell it in the market,” court observed pointing to the sequence of events involved in an act of “impropriety”.
The NSP weapon is one which army personnel are entitled to buy from the Jabalpur ordnance depot after sending an application to a committee and getting a licence first to possess it. It is not a prohibited weapon.
The matter involves 28 officers of different seniority and a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) by advocate Arvind Kunmar Sharma has alleged that serving and retired army officers were involved in the illegal sale of NSP weapons.
In a poser to Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, it asked what would he call an army officer selling a gun – which he got from the depot, sold it, and made profits.
Expressing amazement at such officers getting away with “very lenient” punishment of a fine of Rs.500 for committing such a crime, the court asked what it would say if someone who spent three months in jail for stealing Rs.10 comes and asks how an army officer was let off for selling his weapon.
Rohatgi made a plea that the question of the quantum of punishment of such officers could not be re-opened.
Rohatgi said the conviction and sentencing under the criminal law could only be challenged either by a state or an accused or a victim but not by a PIL petitioner invoking Article 32 of the constitution for enforcement of fundamental rights.
He also sought to forestall any move by the apex court to take recourse to Article 142 – reservoir of the apex court power – as such a step would be in the teeth of Article 20 (protection in respect of conviction for offences) and 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) and also putting in jeopardy the entire basis of criminal jurisprudence.
As the court said it is not for the retrial but only concerned about the sentencing, Rohatgi said “sentencing is a part of the trial and judgment.”