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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Dabholkar murder case: Court frames charges against five accused, they plead not guilty

Dr Dabholkar, a rationalist and founder of the anti-superstition organisation Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, was shot dead by two assailants while he was on a morning walk on the V R Shinde Bridge in the heart of Pune, on August 20 in 2013.

Written by Sushant Kulkarni | Pune |
Updated: September 15, 2021 8:52:44 pm
Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, founder president of Maharashtra Andhashrddha Nirmoolan Samiti, during an interaction at Express Office in 2011. (Express File Photo by Sandeep Daundkar)

A Special Court in Pune on Wednesday framed charges against the five accused chargesheeted in the murder case of Dr Narendra Dabholkar, marking the beginning of the trial. The accused, who are all linked to the radical outfit Sanatan Sanstha, pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.

The Special Court of Additional Sessions Judge S R Navandar framed charges against four of the accused — Dr Virendrasingh Tawade, Sachin Andure Sharad Kalaskar and Vikram Bhave — for murder, conspiracy to commit murder along with Section 16 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act pertaining to terrorist act, and various provisions of the Arms Act. The court has charged the fifth accused, Sanjeev Punalekar, for destruction of evidence in the case.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which had taken over the case from Pune City Police in 2014, has till now chargesheeted five accused in the case. The court was slated to frame the charges during the last hearing of the case held on September 7. However, the accused had sought time, which the court had granted.

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For the hearing on Wednesday, Punalekar and Bhave were present physically, while Tawade, Andure and Kalaskar attended via video-conferencing from the prisons they are lodged in. As part of the process of framing of charges, the court started asking each of the accused whether they plead guilty or not guilty to the charges against them. Addressing the accused, Judge Navandar asked, “In the last hearing, we had finalised the charges against you. The trial will start now. Do you plead guilty or not guilty?”

Responding to the court’s question, Kalaskar, Tawade and Andure sought more time, citing various reasons. The court told them, “No extension will be granted. I am making it clear. The prosecution will submit the documents they are relying on. Arguments will be held on that. You will get to consult with your lawyers. But the court will not give further time for the process of framing charges…The hearing on framing of charges has concluded. Your lawyers have argued. And the court has ruled on that. You are just expected to say whether you plead guilty or not guilty. And if you refuse to say anything, the court will have to take that refusal on record.”

After the court made its stand clear, all the five accused pleaded not guilty. The process of framing of charges marked the beginning of the trial in the eight-year-old murder case.

Special Public Prosecutor Prakash Suryavanshi, and defence counsels Virendra Ichalkaranjikar and Prakash Salsingikar, were present in the court. The court has also ordered that Andure and Kalaskar, who are lodged in Aurangabad’s Harsul Prison and Mumbai’s Arthur Road Prison, respectively, be transferred to Pune’s Yerawada Central Prison, for the purpose of the trial. Tawade is currently in Yerawada Prison.

During the hearing on Wednesday, the court said that as far as possible, arrangements will be made to facilitate the physical presence of the accused in the court during the trial, taking into consideration the Covid-19 situation from time to time. Defence lawyers contended that the hearing must be held with physical presence as it will allow confidential discussions between the lawyers and their clients, especially when the evidentiary hearing will be conducted. The court also said that if necessary, the hearings can also be conducted on the prison premises.

Dr Dabholkar, a rationalist and founder of the anti-superstition organisation Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, was shot dead by two assailants while he was on a morning walk on the V R Shinde Bridge in the heart of Pune, on August 20 in 2013. He was 67.

In its first breakthrough in the case in June 2016, the CBI had arrested Sanatan member and ENT surgeon Dr Tawade. The chargesheet against him was filed in September 2016, and the CBI called him the “mastermind” of the conspiracy to kill Dr Dabholkar. In August 2018, the CBI arrested two more Sanatan members, Andure and Kalaskar. The supplementary chargesheet against the two was filed in February 2019 and the two were named by the CBI as the assailants who shot Dr Dabholkar.

In May 2019, the CBI arrested Mumbai-based lawyer Sanjeev Punalekar, who had earlier represented the other accused in the case, and his aide Vikram Bhave, both linked to Sanatan Sanstha. The chargesheet against them was filed in November 2019. The CBI has said that Punalekar played a role in destruction of evidence in the case by advising the shooters to dispose of the weapon in the Thane creek.

The agency claimed that Bhave helped the shooters procure the bike, conduct a reconnaissance and find an escape route. While Tawade, Andure and Kalaskar are in jail in judicial custody, Punalekar and Bhave are out on bail.

The defence, in its arguments, has time and again cited the contradiction in the CBI’s claims about the shooters made at two different points. In its 2016 chargesheet against Tawade, the CBI had named absconding Sanatan Sanstha members Sarang Akolkar and Vinay Pawar as the two assailants who shot Dabholkar dead, a claim the agency itself contradicted at a later stage.

The CBI had also arrested three other Sanatan members — Amol Kale, Amit Digwekar and Rajesh Bangera – during the investigation of Dabholkar murder case, but they have not been chargesheeted. The three, along with Kalaskar, have been named as accused in the 2017 murder of Bengaluru journalist Gauri Lankesh.

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