The Delhi high court has refused to stay disciplinary proceedings against two Indian Air Force officers in the dock for their role in an air accident after the Balakote strike last year.
Justice Asha Menon allowed the IAF authorities to carry on with Court of Inquiry (CoI) against the two officers who were held responsible for circumstances leading to the shooting down of an Mi-17 helicopter of IAF by its own missile in Kashmir’s Budgam on February 27 last year, when the Indian and Pakistani air forces were engaged in a fierce dogfight. Six officers of IAF and one civilian lost their lives.
Facing the prospect of a possible Court Martial, the officers had moved HC against the Armed Forces Tribunal’s nod to authorities to go ahead with the CoI process. “The scope of judicial review in respect of departmental proceedings is very limited,” HC noted, while hearing a plea by Group Captain Suman Roy Chowdhury and Wing Commander Shyam Naithani.
Justice Menon said after going through the record and taking note of the submissions, there is no ground to interfere with the orders of the AFT or to restrain IAF from proceeding with the follow up to the CoI proceedings.
Both officers argued that AFT ignored the fundamental error in faulty reference of the accident to the CoI, which itself was constituted without a Technical Member from the Air Traffic Control. They also pointed out that after being arraigned, they were neither allowed nor provided copies of the charges to allow them to prepare their defence.
But HC noted that “courts have not yet defined what ‘full participation’ means” adding that the standard of a criminal trial taking place only in the presence of the accused “would be applicable at the court martial and not at a pre trial stage or at a preliminary fact finding enquiry.”
It also underlined that the officers had initially examined as witnesses but when testimony against their “character and professional reputation” came before the CoI it formed an opinion that “blame apparently attaches” to them.
In September, the AFT had stayed disciplinary action against two officers against whom action was taken based on a CoI. A high-level probe by the IAF found that a surface-to-air missile of the force brought down the chopper.
The probe had found that the ‘Identification of Friend or Foe’ (IFF) system on-board the helicopter was switched off and there were “vital gaps” in communication and coordination between the ground staff and the crew of the chopper. It also found violations of standard operating procedures. The IFF helps air defence radars identify whether an aircraft or helicopter is friendly or hostile.