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Delhi Court Acquits Two Men in 1981 Indian Airlines Flight Hijacking Case

The hijackers, who reportedly belonged to the Dal Khalsa extremist outfit, had demanded the release of several Khalistani extremists, including Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, among other things.


Updated:August 27, 2018, 9:17 PM IST
Delhi Court Acquits Two Men in 1981 Indian Airlines Flight Hijacking Case
Illustration by Mir Suhail.
New Delhi: A Delhi court on Monday acquitted two men of charges of waging a war against the country in a case related to the hijacking of a Delhi-Srinagar Indian Airlines flight and forcing it to land in Pakistan in 1981.

Tajinder Pal Singh and Satnam were granted "benefit of doubt" by the court, which said the prosecution has failed to prove beyond "reasonable doubt" the charges levelled against them. According to the prosecution, Indian Airlines flight IC-423, operated by a Boeing 737 and carrying 111 passengers and six crew members, took off from the Palam Airport here to Srinagar on September 29, 1981.

It was hijacked mid-air by the accused, who forced the plane to land at Lahore in Pakistan, where they got arrested and underwent imprisonment from September 30, 1981, to October 31, 1994, as part of their life sentence by a court there, the prosecution had said.

The hijackers, who reportedly belonged to the Dal Khalsa extremist outfit, had demanded the release of several Khalistani extremists, including Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, among other things.
In a commando action, Pakistan used its elite commando force which cleared the plane and got all the passengers released. The hijackers faced trial in Pakistan and they were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Additional Sessions Judge Ajay Pandey termed the case as "unique", saying the prosecution of the accused was not launched by the police but got initiated on the filing of an application by them for discharge.

Besides Jalandhar resident Tajinder Pal Singh and Himachal Pradesh-based Satnam, there were three more persons — Gajender Singh (from Chandigarh), Karan Singh (Jammu and Kashmir), Jasbir Singh Chima (Mohali, Punjab) — were wanted in the case.

While Satnam was discharged on February 11, 2000, by a city court on grounds of double jeopardy as he had already been convicted for the incident in Pakistan, co-accused Tajender moved court seeking discharge on the ground of parity on July 19, 2000.

However on October 1, 2011, a supplementary chargesheet was filed against all the accused, following which a prosecution was launched against both of them, while three others were declared proclaimed offenders.

Advocate Maninder Singh, who appeared for Tajinder and Satnam, said the other three accused were declared proclaimed offenders.
While acquitting the accused, the court said the main chargesheet filed by the police after registration of the FIR in 1981 was not available either with the police or in the court records.

Noting that "a clear non-application of mind or consideration of extraneous material is reflected", it said the accused were entitled to acquittal "for want of proper sanction", which had remained a "grey area" in the case. If convicted, the accused could have got death penalty or life sentence.

It said that besides their confession about the hijack in their discharge application, nor was any information available against them, neither did any of the witnesses recognise them during the trial.

"Even if the fact stated in the application of the accused are taken on their face value and even if for the sake of arguments it is presumed that the accused have admitted the hijacking of a plane to Lahore, it is rightly submitted by their counsel that the prosecution has failed to satisfy the ingredients of section 121 (waging war against the government of India) and 121 A (conspiracy to wage war against government of India) of IPC beyond reasonable doubt against either of the accused," the court said.

It noted that both the accused persons had already been convicted for the alleged hijacking by the competent court in Pakistan.
However, the court said "findings of the judgment of Pakistan court, cannot be read against the accused persons to prove their presence or of the alleged act committed by them on board flight."

The judgment of the Pakistan court was only relevant to the extent that the accused were tried and convicted there, it said, adding that an independent appreciation of evidence was required to be done. It said the chargesheet, on the basis of which the judgment was passed by the Pakistan court, and the evidence was not available before it.

The court said the fact of trial of the accused was relevant for considering their plea of double jeopardy in view of section 300 (person once convicted or acquitted not to be tried for same offence) of the CrPC and Article 20 (2) (no person shall be prosecuted and punished for the same offence more than once) of Constitution, it said. It said no official document, letter or communication was collected by the Investigating Officer to verify the names of the crew members of the flight. Also absent was the identification and description of specific roles of each accused by witnesses.

"The accused persons are thus granted benefit of doubt and are acquitted of the charges levelled against them," the court said. It also discharged the two from the offences under section 124A (sedition) of IPC. The court had framed charges under section 121 and 121A, read with section 120B (criminal conspiracy) of IPC against both accused persons to which they pleaded not guilty and claimed trial.

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