Tamil Nadu custodial deaths | Madras High Court finds prima facie material to book Sattankulam policemen for murder

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The Madras High Court (Madurai Bench) on Tuesday found prima facie material to book the policemen allegedly involved in the custodial deaths of trader P. Jayaraj and his son J. Benicks in Sattankulam for murder, thanks to a woman head constable’s statement, the medical report and the judicial magistrate’s report.

To ensure that the inquiry into the case was not scuttled, a Bench of Justices P.N. Prakash and B. Pugalendhi ordered that the probe be immediately handed over to the CB-CID till such time as the CBI takes charge of the investigation.

Data | Five States including Tamil Nadu recorded over 100 custodial deaths but zero police convictions between 2001-18

“In our opinion, the ante-mortem injuries found on the bodies of the deceased, coupled with the averments in the report of the learned judicial magistrate no.1, Kovilpatti, especially the statement of head constable Revathy, would be prima facie enough to alter the case against the Sattankulam policemen, who were actively involved in the investigation of the case to one under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (murder),” the court said.

Noting that Ms. Revathy’s statement should be recorded by a judicial magistrate under Section 164 of the Cr.P.C., the court directed the Thoothukudi Collector to “immediately ensure the safety of Ms. Revathy and her family members”. The court said she may be granted leave from duty, “as we fear that there will be an attempt to intimidate her and make her resile from her version [of events] given to the learned judicial magistrate no.1, Kovilpatti”.

The court discerned from the judicial magistrate’s report that the Sattankulam police were taking advantage of the fact that the investigation of the case was in limbo and were attempting to cause the disappearance of evidence. “In fact, they were emboldened enough to even intimidate the judicial officer to put a spoke in the wheel of his inquiry,” the judges noted.

They felt that the CBI was an agency equipped to deal with corruption and white-collar offences, with an office only in Madurai and no Special Public Prosecutor to appear before the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court for bail and anticipatory bail petitions that would follow in the case. Besides, the investigating officer should get acclimatised with the “local terrain”. The court was of the view that all this will work to the advantage of the actual perpetrators of the offence.

Therefore, to preserve the evidence in the case, the court appointed Tirunelveli CB-CID Deputy Superintendent of Police Anil Kumar as the investigating officer in the case, till such time as the CBI takes charge. The Superintendent of Police, CB-CID, shall monitor the investigation. The vacuum had to be filled to ensure that precious evidence does not get dissipated, the court said.

Also read | Five custodial deaths in India daily, says report

On the question of why it took time for the court to come up with these observations, the judges said, “Public indignation cannot be the barometer for judicial orders…Hitherto, in the absence of credible material, we were handicapped, and now that we have at hand some prima facie incriminatory material, we have decided to fill the gap via our above observations.”

The court added, “We fervently hope that DSP Anil Kumar will have before his mind’s eye the river of tears flowing from the eyes of the family of the two deceased, and will take up the investigation of the case in all earnestness for wiping their tears. He should also bear in mind that we are closely monitoring the case.”

The court said it was open to the State government revisiting the idea of entrusting the matter to the CBI, if it was satisfied that the CB-CID was progressing on the right lines.

During the course of the hearing into the suo motu criminal contempt proceedings initiated against Additional SP D. Kumar, DSP C. Prathapan and constable Maharajan, the court was informed that the two senior police officers had been placed under a waiting list, while the constable had been suspended.

Also read | DMK demands immediate arrest of police officers on murder charge

Additional Advocate General K. Chellapandian informed the court that all 24 police personnel attached to the Sattankulam station had been transferred. The AAG contended that stress was the reason for their behaviour, and they had tendered an apology. Their behaviour was unacceptable, he said.

The court directed that a copy of the magistrate’s report be provided to the trio so that they could respond in four weeks’ time. The case was adjourned till July 2.

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