New Delhi: 35 crew members of a vessel owned by a US firm, arrested in 2013 for allegedly carrying a huge cache of weapons illegally onboard, will be prosecuted under the Arms Act, the Supreme Court has said.
The apex court said this while setting aside an order of the Madras High Court which had quashed the charges under the provisions of the Arms Act, as alleged by the Tamil Nadu CID in its charge sheet.
A bench of justices Vikramajit Sen and Abhay Manohar Sapre noted that the high court's observations were "wholly unwarranted" and cannot be upheld.
"The very fact that huge quantity of arms and ammunition were recovered from the possession and control of the crew members from the vessel and, further during investigation, the crew members were unable to satisfy their legal possession over such arms/ammunition with them by not being able to produce any evidence such as licenses, certificates etc," the bench said.
"It was sufficient to attract the provisions of Arms Act for initiating prosecution of the accused for commission of the offences punishable under the Arms Act, namely, for possessing unlicensed and unauthorized arms/ammunition on the vessel," it said.
The bench also directed the lower court in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu to complete the trial in the case within six months from the date of receipt of the copy of its judgment.
According to the probe agency, on October 11, 2013, the Indian Coast Guard at Thoothukudi had received an information that a vessel, M V Seaman Guard Ohio, was stationed in Indian water and allegedly indulged in illegal activities.
It had 35 crew members on board of which 11 were Indians and the remaining were foreign nationals, it had said.
It alleged that the Indian Coast Guard ship intercepted the vessel and on inquiry, it was found that 35 firearms, 5682 ammunition and 102 magazines were kept in it without any documents and authorization certificates.
After conducting the probe, the agency had filed a charge sheet naming several accused, including US-based owner of vessel Advanfort Company and its Director Operations Mohamed Frajallah.
The lower court had issued non-bailable warrants against Advanfort Company and Frajallah but they did not appear before it, while some other chargesheeted accused were absconding.
As some of the accused challenged the charge sheet filed against them, the high court quashed the charges under the Arms Act as alleged by the state CID.
The apex court, however, said "we have no hesitation to hold that the High Court erred in allowing both the criminal cases filed by the accused persons, thereby erred in quashing the charge sheet at the threshold."
"This approach of the High Court while hearing the case under section 482 of the Code, in our considered view, was wholly unwarranted, illegal and thus cannot be upheld," it said.
Regarding high court's finding that provisions of Arms Act was not applicable in the case, the apex court said that such finding could not have been recorded by the high court after the recording of evidence.
"In the light of foregoing discussion, we cannot concur with the reasoning and the conclusion arrived at by the High Court. As a result, the appeals succeed and are accordingly allowed. Impugned order is set aside resulting in dismissal of two cases filed by the respondents (accused) before the High Court out of which these two appeals arise," it said.