The Hyderabad Police is clearly in the dock over the encounter killing of four persons who were accused of raping and murdering Disha, a 26-year-old veterinarian, on 27 November 2019.
A Supreme Court-appointed fact finding commission, through cross examination of top police officials, has revealed blow-by-blow how the four accused – C Chennakesavulu, Jollu Shiva, Jollu Naveen and Mohammed Arif – met their end, when taken for an 'evidence collection drive' to Chatanpally village, in the outskirts of Hyderabad, on 6 December 2019.
In effect, the Justice Sirpurkar Commission has revealed gaping holes in the police’s ‘encounter’ story. Moreover, the questions from the commission – which is made up of retired judges Justices VS Sirpurkar and Rekha Sundar Baldota along with former CBI director DR Karthikeyan – have also posed serious questions about other encounter killings in the state.
The Quint examined transcripts of the hearings where top cop VC Sajjanar, who was in-charge of Disha case investigation, was cross-examined, and they did not make for good reading for him or the investigation.
In 2019, Sajjanar was the Commissioner of Police, Cyberabad. He is currently the Managing Director of Telangana State Road Transport Corporation.
COMMISSION: After the incident on 6 December 2019 press described you as an encounter specialist. Did you issue any statement contradicting this?
VC SAJJANAR: No. I did not.
COMMISSION: Do you agree that you are an encounter specialist?
VC SAJJANAR: No.
COMMISSION: According to you what is an encounter specialist?
VC SAJJANAR: I do not know the meaning of encounter specialist.
The accused were killed when they were in police custody. The police have been claiming that they opened fire and killed the four accused when two among them – Chennakesavulu and Arif – snatched the service weapons of accompanying police officials, attacked them and tried to flee.
So how did the police's case seemingly fall apart before the commission? Here's what the proceedings revealed.
Previous 'Encounters' by Same Officer Considered
In Telangana, there have been 12 encounter killings between 2008 and 2019. In 2008, three youth from Warangal who were accused of attacking two women with acid were killed in an encounter. One of the women had died and the other had suffered severe acid burn injuries.
Similar to the police’s case in Disha encounter, the Warangal police had then claimed that the accused were killed when they tried to escape after attacking the duty officers with country-made weapons, during an evidence collection drive.
At the time, Sajjanar was the Superintendent of Police, Warangal. While facing cross-examination before the Sirpurkar commission this precedent involving the top cop was taken into account, transcripts reveal.
The commission, referring to “evidences on affidavits” submitted before it, and asked Sajjanar about a “pattern” of encounter killings that seem to happen while taking accused for evidence collection.
COMMISSION: The commission received evidences on affidavit where in it is alleged that encounter of accused happen at the time of recovery of material objects…a similar pattern in Warangal in 2008, with respect to Naxalities in 2016 and with respect to accused in this case.
VC SAJJANAR: Yes, I was incidentally SP in Warangal in 2008. In 2016 I was not in regular law and order post at all.
While Sajjanar refused to comment further on the emergence of the pattern, the commission went on to question him about the public approval he courted when he held press conferences after the arrest of the Disha case accused and their encounter killing.
In Telangana, public support for encounter killings is common, as death of accused in the hands of police is considered justice served.
However, are the police responsible for promoting this culture?
Media Glare: Did the Police Mislead the Public?
On 29 September 2019, a day after Disha was killed, Sajjanar had addressed a media conference detailing the events that led to the woman’s rape and death.
The commission questioned Sajjanar over sharing “graphic details” of the incident, even before confessions of the accused were recorded in the police case diary.
The details of the incident had attracted widespread public attention leading to a clamour for “death to the accused” who had allegedly committed the heinous crime.
Taking the questioning forward, the commission asked the former Commissioner of Police, how the local DCP who supposedly briefed him, came to know the details without any confession.
While Sajjanar answered that the DCP’s briefing was based on CCTV footage, scientific evidence collected by the DCP, cyber tower call data and call records of the suspected accused, the commission scrutinised how he came to know minute details like, “the victim’s mouth was stuffed with cloth”?
The gory details were relayed to the public within minutes of the media conference.
COMMISSION: You mean to say that the details regarding some accused deflated the tyres of the scooty used by Disha, that they stuffed her mouth with a piece of cloth, while molesting her were a part of CCTV and scientific evidence?
VC SAJJANAR: The entire press briefing was on the basis of the briefing done by DCP Shamshabad. There were evidence recovered from the scene, an underwear of the victim and purse and some cards were found. As far as I remember DCP Shamshabad informed these details to me. I think by the time the PC was held confession of accused no. one was recorded. I will have to check.
The commission also questioned why the details of the confession were conveyed to the public before submitting it before a judicial magistrate. The planned and pandering nature of the press conference was also questioned.
The commission members queried why what was supposed to be an "impromptu press conference" had included planned elements such as "PPT, photographs of the accused and confession details". While Sajjanar claimed that no Powerpoint presentation was used, he added the "other things were arranged by the DCP office".
COMMISSION: Do you think making confession of an accused public would interfere with the course of investigation…?
VC SAJJANAR: No.
However, the biggest blows to the credibility of the police investigation arose from the intense scrutiny of the "erroneous statements" by police officers regarding the incidents that took place on the day of the encounter. The questioning revealed several false claims that were made by the police.
'Erroneous Statements' From Safehouse to Encounter Spot
According to the police's version, the four accused who were released into police custody from the prison were taken to a "safehouse" on 4 December 2019. The safehouse was a rented guesthouse where the police kept the accused for two days for custodial interrogation.
The former CP informed the commission that he had not given permission to rent the safehouse. His subordinate officers had, however, informed him of taking the accused to the safehouse to prevent them harm from the public who were agitated by the crime, he said.
The in-charge officer told the commission that the accused were taken from prison to recover "material objects" or articles which they had allegedly taken from the victim and hidden away.
COMMISSION: Did you not enquire the purpose of the accused being taken to Ravi guest house (Safehouse)?
VC SAJJANAR: In the letter communicated to CP on 2 December 2019 it was said that the accused are being taken to safeguard them from general public.
However, the commission then brought up the press conference that Sajjanar held after the accused were killed on 6 December 2019 to scrutinise this claim. The officer had told the press that the victim’s belongings were found from the spot of the encounter – but in truth no "material objects" were ever recovered from there.
Also, in his press statement Sajjanar had said that all the police personnel who had accompanied the accused were armed. In fact, only six of the ten policemen were armed and the four others who were at the spot were not.
The commission also questioned the former police commissioner for having told the media that the safety catches of firearms of two police officers were unlocked, even as the accused allegedly grabbed the weapons. As per the Investigating Officer's statement, however, this fact had not been ascertained.
Sajjanar had also said that DNA profiling of the accused and the victim had been done, which was also untrue.
As a number of "erroneous statements" had been made to the press, the commission suggested this prejudiced the investigation.
COMMISSION: By your erroneous answers have you not completely prejudiced a fair and impartial investigation...?
VC SAJJANAR: No.
While the commission's questioning of the in-charge police officer seems tough, legal experts say that it is the subsequent police investigation into the 'encounter' that will matter the most.
Will the Judicial Enquiry Make an Impact?
Senior advocate and human rights law expert Colin Gonsalves said that the judicial commission's observations "will not be binding". The case should have been probed by the state police or the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), he told The Quint.
The state government had set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the "exchange of fire" case registered in the FIR filed on 6 December 2019, the day of the encounter killing. The team led by Rachakonda Commissioner of Police Mahesh Bhagwat had investigated the police's claim that the incident had been one of "retaliatory firing".
While the SIT investigation has reportedly concluded, it was found that "the police action was justified", a police source told The Quint. No charge-sheet has been filed in this case yet.
"The SIT should have filed a closure report and a charge sheet by now. That is what would have mattered," Gonsalves said. Given these circumstances, the judicial commission's work may end up having no practical effect, he rued. But will the Supreme Court order a reopening of investigation based on the commission's final report?
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