10 Nov 2023 5:27 AM GMT
The Supreme Court recently upheld the conviction and life sentence of appellants involved in a deadly conspiracy of liquor poisoning. The Court relied on the landmark case of State v. Nalini to lay down the essential constituents for proving a case of criminal conspiracy. It reaffirmed that “Where in pursuance of the agreement, the conspirators commit offenses individually, all of them will...
The Supreme Court recently upheld the conviction and life sentence of appellants involved in a deadly conspiracy of liquor poisoning. The Court relied on the landmark case of State v. Nalini to lay down the essential constituents for proving a case of criminal conspiracy. It reaffirmed that “Where in pursuance of the agreement, the conspirators commit offenses individually, all of them will be liable for such offenses even if some of them have not actively participated in the commission of those offenses.”.
The Court after examining the testimonies of witnesses was convinced that there was sufficient evidence for establishing a criminal conspiracy. The Court pointed out that the destruction of evidence can link the accused to a larger conspiracy. It further highlighted that the failure of the accused to justify incriminating circumstances can lead the court to draw adverse inferences against them.
The Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Sanjay Karol and Justice Abhay S. Oka was hearing an appeal against the Kerala HC judgment which confirmed the conviction of appellants under Sections 302, 307, and 326 read with Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code and Section 55(a), (h), (i) and Section 57 (A) (1) (ii) of the Abkari Act.
In a harrowing incident back in 2003, a deadly conspiracy resulted in the deaths of 7 innocent individuals, left 11 blinded, and more than 40 others with varying degrees of injuries due to alcohol poisoning. The perpetrators, identified as A1, A3, A10, and A11, conspired to mix methyl alcohol with spirit for unlawful gain through an outlet operated by A1.
The trial court convicted them in 2004, which was also upheld by the HC. A1 had preferred an SLP before the Apex Court which was dismissed in 2016. Presently, appeals were filed by A10 and A11 before the Supreme Court.
The Court first noted that the cause of death for the victims was confirmed as poisoning caused by methyl alcohol, and the courts, after careful consideration, had affirmed A1's role in the illicit liquor trade. After a comprehensive examination of witness testimonies, the court found that the appellants were familiar with A1, and methyl alcohol was allegedly stored at A1’s residence.
The court underscored that the appellant(A11), through RR Distributors, procured Biosole with 100% methyl alcohol, purportedly sold to various entities. However, alleged buyers (PW28 to PW33) denied any such transactions or receipt of methyl alcohol-containing cans.
Therefore, the court observed, “it is entirely clear that the transactions reflected in the register of RR distributors (Ex.P6) were fictitious and the record prepared was only to show sales ostensibly to genuine customers, as per the process of law.”
All conspirators are liable even if they’ve not actively participated in committing those offences
The court meticulously examined the depositions to determine the sufficiency of evidence to establish a conspiracy under Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
The court referred to the landmark case of State v. Nalini & Ors. (3-Judge Bench) (1999) 5 SCC 253, summarizing the essential ingredients for constituting a criminal conspiracy-
These principles reiterated in the case of Yakub Abdul Razak Memon v. State of Maharashtra (2-Judge Bench) (2013) 13 SCC 1, emphasize the importance of proving an agreement between parties to establish conspiracy. The court's reliance on these principles echoed in cases like Arvind Singh v. State of Maharashtra (3-Judge Bench) (2021) 11 SCC 1 and Mohd. Naushad v. State (NCT of Delhi) 2023 SCC Online SC 784 where it was clarified the offense of criminal conspiracy is of joint responsibility, all conspirators are liable for the acts of each of the crimes which have been committed as a result of the conspiracy
Applying these principles to the facts, the court concluded that the appellants had a known association with A1, visited his residence in the company of other accused individuals, and were involved in the supply and storage of harmful methyl alcohol. Moreover, the appellant (A11) was actively involved in the management of RR Distributors and fabricated records of methyl alcohol sales.
Therefore, the court concluded, “the prosecution has succeeded in establishing the offense of criminal conspiracy of A10 and A11 with A1 (conviction of whom stands affirmed).”
Destruction of evidence can link the accused to a larger conspiracy
Then, the court dealt with the destruction of evidence by the appellant(A11). The court emphasized that this act supported the prosecution's narrative about his attempt to eliminate incriminating material connecting them to the crime. Citing the State of Haryana v. Krishan case (2017) 8 SCC 204, the court underlined how the destruction of evidence can link accused parties to larger conspiracies. The Court was of the view that the discovery of burnt plastic residue and methyl alcohol in soil samples from the appellant's residence connected the materials to the incident in question.
The Court further highlighted the accused's duty to explain incriminating circumstances, as established in cases like Phula Singh v. State of Himachal Pradesh AIR 2014 SC 1256 and Indrakunwar v. State of Chhattisgarh 2023 SCCOnline 1364. In this case, the appellant failed to justify these incriminating circumstances, leading the court to draw adverse inferences against them.
Section 57A Abkari Act extends to anyone mixing noxious substances likely to endanger human life
Moreover, beyond offenses under the Penal Code, the accused were convicted under provisions of the Abkari Act. Referring to Chandran v. State of Kerala (2011) 5 SCC 161, the court elucidated that Section 57(A)(1) of the Abkari Act doesn't just pertain to license holders but extends to anyone mixing noxious substances likely to endanger human life with liquor. The burden of proof on the accused under this section was constitutionally upheld in P.N. Krishna Lal v. Govt. of Kerala 1995 Supp (2) SCC 187.
The ruling further addressed the issue of conspiracy and mens rea under Section 57A of the Abkari Act, reaffirming the importance of active involvement in the act of mixing harmful substances. The court held that the testimonies and evidence pointed to the appellant’s presence at the scene, their knowledge of the poisonous nature of the substance they supplied, and A11's fabrication of records concerning the distribution of the prohibited substance.
The Court finally held “There can be no doubt left about the involvement of the accused persons before us, in the sale and mixing of methyl alcohol with spirit as part of the conspiracy, resulting in deaths and injuries to many innocent persons. The conviction of A10 and A11 under Sections 302, 307, 326 and 120B IPC and 57(A)(1)(ii) of the Abkari Act has to be upheld.”
Case title: Sajeev v. State of Kerala
Citation: 2023 LiveLaw (SC) 974
Click Here To Read/Download Judgment