May 13, 2022 6:35:24 pm
An CBI court in Ahmedabad Thursday sentenced three Indian Air Force officers, two of whom are retired, to life sentence after holding them guilty of murder for the custodial death of an Air Force canteen civilian cook aged around 45 years at the time of the death in 1995.
IAF officials Anoop Sood, retired group captain who was working as a Squadron Leader and Station Security Officer at Air Force Station, Jamnagar in 1995; Anil K N, retired sergeant and Mahender Singh Sherawat, serving sergeant at IAF HQ WAC(U) — were ordered to be taken into judicial custody on May 10, cancelling their bail, after the court held the three guilty for the offence. On Thursday, the CBI court pronounced the quantum of punishment, taking into account aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The court noted that the custodial torture by the law enforcing agencies is “one of the worst kind of crime in society governed by the rule of law”.
Three other accused, all retired — Satyendranath Chakrabarti, Nirmal Kumar Majumdar and Rajesh Singh Kataria — were acquitted of all charges and another accused, Mahabir Prasad, stands abated from the case owing to his death during the pendency of the trial.
In November 1995, 94 liquor bottles were stolen from Jamnagar CSD (canteen stores department) canteen of the Air Force and it was suspected that the cook, Girja Rawat was behind it. Air Commodore K C Phillipose, the then Air Officer Commanding the Air Force Station of Jamnagar, directed a search at Rawat’s residential quarter. As many as 12 Air Force officials had participated in the search operation, during which one broken glass bottle was seized from outside the compound of Rawat’s residential quarters, following which Rawat was taken into the custody for further inquiries. The next day, Rawat was declared “brought dead” by a medical officer at station sick quarter (SSQ) in Jamnagar.
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While the local police filed a case of accidental death, Rawat’s wife Shakuntala Devi lodged an FIR naming Air Force officials of different ranks for offences punishable under IPC Sections 302 (murder), 331 (Voluntarily causing grievous hurt to extort confession, or to compel restoration of property), and 114 (abettor present).
Notably, the post-mortem report had highlighted a number of internal and external ante-mortem injuries on Rawat’s body and the cause of death was specified as “shock and haemorrhage on account of thoraco–abdominal injuries caused by hard and blunt objects”.
While the local police had finally chargesheeted seven officials, Shakuntala Devi had moved the Gujarat High Court seeking a re-investigation by the CBI, which was allowed. The High Court directed CBI Gandhinagar to further probe Rawat’s death. Subsequently, the CBI filed a supplementary chargesheet in the matter against a total of eight accused, including one absconding accused J S Sidhu, who was the then head of the Air Force Police, Jamnagar. All eight were booked for offences punishable under IPC Sections 120-B (criminal conspiracy) read with IPC Sections 302, 331 (causing hurt to extort confession), 348 (wrongful confinement to extort confession) and 177 (knowingly furnishing false information to public servant). The CBI court has now held three guilty of all charges and acquitted three others while trial against one absconding Sidhu remains pending.
The trial was transferred from the Jamnagar sessions court to an Ahmedabad CBI court in 2017, with a separate chargesheet filed against the absconder Sidhu. CBI examined 56 witnesses during the trial, including the deceased’s wife, along with placing reliance on documentary evidence.
Based on witness accounts, the special CBI court concluded that accused Sood and absconding accused Sidhu had taken Rawat “at night to remote place near technical area for interrogation and extracting confession”, and that accused Anil K N and Sherawat had “brought the body of Mr Rawat to SSQ in a condition where the deceased was not breathing”.
The court took into account junior warrant officer Jawaharlal Pandey’s deposition, concluding that he was “an eye witness to calling of Mr Rawat in the office of Mr Sidhu where (Sood) was also present after bringing Mr Rawat to main guard room for interrogation,” thus proving “the starting point of conspiracy,” between accused Sood and Sidhu.
The verdict notes, “This Court finds that (Sood) and Mr Sidhu had such a strong suspicion over Mr Rawat of his having stolen the liquor bottles that on finding a single broken bottle from outside the residence of Mr Rawat, a civilian was taken away to main guard room without intimating local police and possibly to extract confession and solve the case of theft.”
Sood was also subjected to a polygraph test, the result of which purportedly exonerated Sood from the allegations according to Sood’s lawyer B P Jhala. The court, however, noted that polygraph test is conducted to “aid the investigation” and Sood being a “highly ranked Air Force Officer with a trained mind”, the defence’s reliance on the test’s results “cannot be a valid ground to deny (Sood’s) involvement.”
The court of special CBI judge Nikhil Joshi concluded that since an FIR in relation to the theft of liquor bottles was already lodged before the local police at Jamnagar in which investigation had begun and Rawat being a civilian not subject to Air Force Act, search warrant by the Air Force Police could not have been issued.
The court also concluded that Sood did not have powers to detain a civilian and thus Rawat’s detention was illegal and also observed that the prosecution was successful in establishing the “active participation in interrogation” of Anil K N and Sherawat, while noting that a wild wooden stick and a uniform belt were used to “voluntarily cause grievous injuries on the body of Mr Rawat to extract confession and with a knowledge and intention that such torturing and beating would be sufficient in the ordinary course to cause death of Mr Rawat”.
The court, however, noted that the prosecution had failed to prove the involvement of Chakrabarti, Majumdar and Kataria, thus leading to their acquittal. Noting that the death sentence is only for “gravest cases of extreme culpability”, and is required to be exercised in exceptional cases, the court sentenced the three convicted to life sentence. “Custodial torture by law enforcing agencies is indeed one of the worst kind of crime in a society governed by rule of law,” special CBI judge Joshi concluded.
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