On Monday, the Bombay High Court upheld the discharge granted by a trial court to former chief of the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad DG Vanzara and four others " all police officers from Gujarat and Rajasthan " in the alleged fake encounter case of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kausar Bi in 2005 and aide Prajapati in 2006. This is just the latest twist in the 13-year-old case, which has seen a number of developments delaying its closure.
How it began
According to Outlook, Sheikh " a criminal who allegedly had links with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) " was shot dead by the Gujarat Police in an alleged encounter on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Vanzara, the former ATS Deputy Inspector General, said that Sheikh was suspected to be in the city on behalf of the LeT and ISI to assassinate a top political figure, presumed to be then chief minister Narendra Modi.
According to the report, the Gujarat Police claimed that Prajapati was killed in another genuine encounter with the Rajasthan Police in December 2006 when he tried to escape from custody while returning to Udaipur from Ahmedabad after another hearing in the case.
The Supreme Court had ordered the Gujarat Police to investigate the matter after Sheikh's brother Rababuddin wrote to the Chief Justice of India a few weeks after the 2005 encounter, saying he was unconvinced about the Gujarat Police's version of how his brother was killed. He had said he was also concerned about the "disappearance" of his sister-in-law, The Quint reported. The task of investigating the case was given to Geeta Johri, the first female officer of the Gujarat Police and the then Inspector General of the CID (Crime), who submitted her report to the top court in September 2016.
According to The Hindu, in 2006, Johri had recommended to the Supreme Court that the investigation be entrusted to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) "at once". She also spoke of the "collusion of the state government in the form of Shri Amit Shah, MoS for Home Affairs". In her report, Johri added that the episode "makes a complete mockery of the rule of law and is perhaps an example of the involvement of the state government in a major crime".
Then, in November that year, journalist Prashant Dayal, who worked for newspaper Divya Bhaskar, purportedly plied Gujarat Police officers with liquor until they bragged about "eliminating anti-national elements", Scroll reported. After further investigation, Dayal reported that two men and a burqa-clad woman were confined at a farm house, which led to the arrest of senior police officials, including Vanzara and Rajkumar Pandian of the Gujarat Police and MN Dinesh Kumar of the Rajasthan Police, for the murder of Sheikh and others, the report added.
CBI takes over
The CBI named 37 accused in its chargesheet, including BJP president Amit Shah, who was the home affairs minister of Gujarat when these encounters took place. Several police officers were also accused in the two cases. The CBI concluded that Sheikh, Kausar Bi and Prajapati were abducted on 23 November, 2005, when they were travelling from Hyderabad to Sangli in Maharashtra in a luxury bus.
The agency claimed that Sheikh was killed on the spot, Kausar Bi a few days later and Prajapati, who was an eyewitness to the two killings, was initially let off, but later arrested and killed by a team of the Rajasthan Police at the behest of Vanzara and the other officers now discharged in the case. The CBI claimed that Sheikh and Prajapati were extortionists who targeted marble traders in Rajasthan and Gujarat, and also did extortion work for the local police. But when the relationship turned sour, the Gujarat Police decided to take them out.
Charges dropped, acquittals galore
In 2014, a special court in Mumbai dropped all charges against Shah. "I am of the opinion that the inference drawn by CBI is not accepted in totality and he (Shah) cannot be charged as an accused," special CBI judge MB Gosavi said in the brief order pronounced in the court.
Between August 2016 and September 2017, the special court in Mumbai, where the case was shifted from Gujarat on the Supreme Court's orders, discharged 15 of these 37 accused, including 14 police officials.
Witnesses turn hostile
Two of three 'panch' witnesses in the 2005 case were declared hostile after they failed to identify accessories seized before them from Sheikh's body before it was taken for autopsy, The Asian Age reported.
In March this year, two more witnesses turned hostile by denying parts of the statements they had recorded 13 years ago. Of the 53 witnesses summoned, 35 have, so far, been declared hostile in the trial on Sheikh's alleged fake encounter, reports said.
Since 29 November, 2017, when the CBI examined its first witness in the case, dozens of eyewitnesses who gave statements to investigators earlier, have said they never saw Sheikh with Kausar Bi and Prajapati being abducted from a bus in November 2005.
These include Misbah Hyder, who was driving the bus in which Sheikh was allegedly travelling. Hyder had earlier claimed that an SUV had stopped the bus, and the police had taken away three persons. But he now denies such an incident had taken place.
Another eyewitness, Amit Sharad Apte, who was also travelling on the same bus, retracted his earlier statement, in which he said he saw Sheikh, his wife and Prajapati.
Protection for witnesses
On 12 February, after two more witnesses had turned hostile, the Bombay High Court sought to know from the CBI the steps it was taking to ensure that the witnesses were able to testify "fearlessly". The high court posed the question to the agency after noting that several of the witnesses in the case examined by a special court had turned hostile. It maintained that the premier investigative agency cannot be a "silent spectator".
"Is it not the CBI's responsibility to ensure that its witnesses are protected so that they can depose against the accused fearlessly?" the court asked. "Considering that several witnesses have turned hostile before the special CBI court, are you providing any protection to them? Your responsibility does not end simply at filing the chargesheet. It is your duty to protect your witnesses," the bench said.
The observations came while the court was hearing an appeal filed by the CBI challenging the discharge of former Gujarat IPS officer NK Amin, one of the 15 accused discharged in the case by the special court. The CBI has charged Amin with being a part of the conspiracy to kill Sheikh, Kausar Bi and Prajapati.
On 29 November, 2017, as the CBI began its examination of eyewitnesses, a defence advocate moved an application seeking to ban the media from reporting the case. The court passed an order the same day, restraining the media from reporting the case "till further orders".
However, on 24 January, the Bombay High Court quashed and set aside the trial court's order prohibiting journalists from reporting on or publishing the proceedings of the case trial. Justice Revati Mohite-Dere minced no words in holding that the special CBI court overreached its powers in issuing the order.
"The rights of the press are intrinsic with the constitutional right that guarantees freedom of expression. In reporting from an open trial, the press not only makes use of its own right, but serves the larger purpose of making such information available to the general public," she said.
Such an order could be issued only in rare cases and for a limited period of time, Mohite-Dere said, adding that mere apprehension of sensationalism by the accused was not a sufficient ground for such a gag order.
With inputs from PTI