Rafale deal:  SC dismisses Centre’s objection claiming privilege over documents by petitioners to seek review

New Delhi: The Supreme Court, in a unanimous judgment on Wednesday, rejected the Centre’s claim of ‘privilege’ over leaked Rafale documents.

The three petitioners — former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, journalist Arun Shourie and lawyer Prashant Bhushan – can now rely upon these documents to seek a review of the court’s judgment, which had given a clean chit to the government in the acquisition of the fighter jet. The top court, by its December 14, 2018, judgment had said that the decision making process for acquiring the jets was not in doubt.

Dismissing the preliminary objections by the government, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said that the review petition can now be heard by taking into account the three documents whose admissibility was questioned by the govt. These classified documents were sourced by the Hindu newspaper, which had also reported that the Defence Ministry had objected to parallel negotiations by the government.

While the Centre argued that the news reports in the Hindu and the illegally obtained documents cannot be taken on record, the bench held that “the right of such publication would seem to be in consonance with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech”. It made another crucial point that there was no legal provision that could stop publication of a document marked as ‘secret’, or restrain such papers from submission in the court.

“There is no provision in the Official Secrets Act and no such provision in any other statute has been brought to our notice by which Parliament has vested any power in the executive arm of the government either to restrain publication of documents marked as secret or bar from placing such documents before a Court of Law which may have been called upon to adjudicate a legal issue concerning the parties,” the judge maintained. Former union minister Arun Shourie, who is one of the review petitioners, said he was delighted at the unanimous verdict.

“We are delighted it is a unanimous verdict dismissing Central government’s peculiar argument on admissibility of documents. Centre’s argument meant that no wrong can be done in the defence deal,” Shourie said. The government had initially claimed that the documents were stolen but later backtracked, and changed its stance saying that they were “photocopied without authorisation”.

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