The Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) has stayed proceedings till further hearing against two Indian Air Force (IAF) officers being tried for the accidental shooting down of an Mi-17V5 chopper a day after the Balakot air strikes in February last year citing violations in the Court of Inquiry (CoI) process.
“Having heard learned Counsel for the parties at length, we find that various statutory provisions of the Air Force rules and the regulations are prima facie demonstrated to have been violated in the matter of conducting the CoI particularly non-compliance with statutory requirement of Rule 156(1) of the Air Force rules,” the Tribunal said in its order dated September 14, 2020.
The principal bench of the AFT directed the IAF to suspend action against Group Captain Suman Roy Chowdhury, then Chief Operations Officer (COO) of Srinagar airbase and Wg Cdr Shyam Naithani, the Air Traffic Control (ATC) in charge, till further hearing. “We may clarify that all observations made in this order are prima facie in nature only for the purpose of considering the question of interim relief and cannot be termed as final determination by us at this stage,” the AFT said.
Counsel of the officers Ankur Chibber had argued that they were not given an opportunity to defend themselves during the CoI.
Day after Balakot
On the morning of February 27, 2019, as fighter jets of India and Pakistan were engaged in a dog fight over Naushera sector, a day after the Balakot air strike, the Mi-17V5 crashed in Budgam shortly after take-off from Srinagar, killing all six personnel onboard and one civilian on the ground. The CoI confirmed that it was shot by Israeli Spyder surface to air missile system of the IAF.
Normally, a CoI report is shared with the accused to enable them to prepare their defence. However, in this case, the IAF invoked a special clause on the grounds of national security to not share it. The officers then approached the Tribunal, requesting that the proceedings be stopped and the report be shared with them.