The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court recently directed the Tamil Nadu government to pay ₹3.5 lakh as compensation to a man who was illegally kept in prison for nine months after his acquittal in a murder case [Rathinam v. The State].
In an order passed on January 12, Justice Sundar Mohan directed that the compensation be paid to the prisoner, Chokkar, within four weeks.
The Court was hearing a petition filed by the prisoner's father seeking compensation for his son's illegal incarceration and for implementing corrective measures to prevent such lapses in the future.
Chokkar and another man, one Mayilraj, were arrested in a murder case in 2012 and charged under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). That same year, both men were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by a local court.
In 2017, Mayilraj challenged his conviction and sentence before the Madras High Court, which acquitted him on October 31, 2019.
At the time, the High Court realised that Chokkar, though convicted in the same case as Mayilraj, had not filed any appeal and was still languishing in prison. The Court then held that Chokkar was entitled to the same relief as his co-accused in the case, and ordered for his release. It specifically directed the authorities at the Central Prison, Madurai, where Chokkar was lodged, to release him from custody.
In the present plea, the petitioner told the High Court that he and his son had been unaware of the Court's acquittal order, and that it was only in July 2017 that a lawyer informed him of such order.
Advocate Henri Tiphagne, who appeared for the petitioner, told the Court that the petitioner subsequently made a representation to the prison authorities, following which he was released on July 14, 2020.
Therefore, the nine-month period between October 2019 and July 2020, when he was finally released, amounted to illegal confinement, Tiphagne said.
The prison authorities submitted that the High Court's acquittal order had not referred to Chokkar by his name, but had merely called him as "A2 (accused number 2)." Therefore, they had been unable to identify and release him, they said.
Justice Mohan, however, refused to accept the prison authorities' submission.
He cited the Supreme Court judgment in the Rudul Sah case to say that the State was bound to repair the damage done by its officers.
"It is seen that this Court, while acquitting A1, Mayilraj, had specifically directed the release of A2 in the case. The respondents cannot say that they did not release the petitioner's son as he was only referred to A2 and no name was mentioned. The direction issued by this Court has been extracted in the earlier part of this order. When such a specific direction has been issued by this Court, it is the bounden duty of the prison officials to verify as to who is A2 and in any event, if they had any doubt, they ought to have obtained clarification from this Court, immediately. Therefore, that cannot be an excuse for not releasing the petitioner's son pursuant to the direction issued by this Court on 31.10.2019. Therefore, this Court has no hesitation to hold that the detention of the petitioner's son from 31.10.2019 to 14.07.2020 is illegal," the order said.
The State government accepted that a lapse had occurred on part of the prison authorities, and agreed to pay any compensation amount that the Court deemed fit to award in the case.
Additional Public Prosecutor R Meenakshi Sundaram also informed the Court that disciplinary action had been taken against the concerned prison officials, including the then Superintendent of the Madurai Central Prison.
After recording the State's submissions, the Court ordered that Chokkar be paid ₹3.5 lakh as compensation for his illegal detention in prison between October 2019 and July 2020.
The Court also directed the State to implement the Supreme Court's directions in Sonadhar v. State of Chhatisgarh on making prisoners aware of their rights, providing legal aid etc.
It further directed the Tamil Nadu government to provide within four months the option of Tamil language in the kiosk machines in State prisons that provide case status and related information to inmates.