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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Series on acquittals I: Holes in probe, poor evidence pile up cases without conviction in Punjab

The spate of recent acquittals by Punjab courts in terror cases that rattled the state from 1995 to 2007 is not encouraging.

Written by Navjeevan Gopal | Updated: May 12, 2017 11:24:55 am
Maur Mandi bomb blast, Maur Mandi blast, punjab blast, punjab, Maur Mandi blast probe, maur probe, indian express news, punjab news, india news A file photo of the Maur Mandi bomb blast site.

Five months after the Maur Mandi bomb blast that killed seven persons days before the Assembly elections early this year, the Punjab Police are yet to find the perpetrators. When they manage eventually to nab them, would they be able to build a case for conviction?

The spate of recent acquittals by Punjab courts in terror cases that rattled the state from 1995 to 2007 is not encouraging.

This year alone, there have been at least four acquittals of high-profile accused in terrorist cases.

On April 27, Harminder Singh Mintoo, who escaped last November with a group of gangsters from the Nabha jail and was arrested in Delhi a day later, was acquitted in a case in Ludhiana. In 2010, police had booked him after recovering explosives material from a Maruti near Halwara Air Force Station in Ludhiana district. The court said there was no evidence to show his involvement.

On May 4, Mintoo was acquitted in another case dating back to January 18, 2010, when bombs were allegedly seized from outside LPG bottling plant at Nabha.

On May 1, Ramandeep Singh Goldy, who police allege is an operative of Khalistan Tiger Force, was acquitted in a case of low-intensity “bomb explosion” in Patiala in 2010. Seven people were injured in the blast. “Police initially said the explosion was the result of an electrical short circuit. Days after, police said it was a bomb blast. During the forensic examination, nothing was recovered from the bodies of the injured which could indicate it to be a bomb blast,” said Goldy’s counsel Sodhi.

In February, former Punjab CM Beant Singh’s assassin Jagtar Singh Hawara was acquitted in a 1992 case of murder of a special police officer. “As per Daily Diary Report (DDR) during Shaheedi Jor Mela at Chamkaur Sahib, the SPO initially got injured in accidental firing. After his death a couple of days later, an FIR was registered in which Hawara and others were named. The other two accused were acquitted by the court earlier and in February, Hawara was also acquitted in the case,” said Hawara’s lawyer in the case, Sarabjit Singh Bains.

In April last year, Hawara was also acquitted by a Ropar court in 2005 bomb explosion near the dera of Piara Singh Bhaniarawala. A number of other persons allegedly associated with a terrorist organisation Babbar Khalsa were named in the case, but were acquitted way back in September 2007.

“There are acquittals in some cases as police sometimes fail to prove the case due to a number of reasons. In many cases, witnesses retract their statements. It is not that arrests were made without any basis,”Punjab’s Director General of Police Suresh Arora said.

But he also conceded that in some cases, the evidence was not up to scratch for securing convictions. “Despite figuring out the role of the accused following detailed investigations, police sometimes fails to get hold of clinching evidence as needed by law to secure conviction,” Arora said.

“There have been cases where police thwarted bomb blast attempts. [1.8 kilograms] of RDX was recovered from [outside District Congress Committee office in 2010] from Amritsar. In another case, police thwarted similar attempt by recovering RDX from outside Halwara Air Force Station,” the DGP said.

While the acquittals continue to pile up, the police keep making fresh arrests of terror suspects in Punjab, linking them to alleged Khalistani “terror modules” based abroad.

In April, Punjab police arrested Jaswinder Kaur, a middle-aged woman, for possessing two illegal weapons from a village near Batala in Gurdaspur district. The police said they had busted a “terror module” that was allegedly run by a man named Shaminder Singh Sherry, who lives in Germany.

While some villagers hold Kaur in high regard and see her as “a mother who became victim of circumstances due to alleged acts of his son”, the DGP says, “Weapons were found from her house. And it was very much in her knowledge and shows her involvement. Even if she claims she was not involved in any module, it was her duty to inform about the illegal weapons at her house to law enforcement agencies.”

The state police chief quoted the recent conviction of Balwinder Singh Possi in a US court as vindication of Punjab Police’s stand that Khalistanis settled abroad were trying to stir trouble back home. Possi, who was associated with Babbar Khalsa and Khalistan Zindabad Force, was sentenced by the district court in Nevada to 15 years in prison for plotting a terror attack in India.

Another terror suspect who is high on Punjab police’s list is Ranjit Singh Nita, suspected to be based in Pakistan. “Nita’s name has been there in the Centre’s list of terrorists wanted by India who have taken shelter in Pakistan,” Arora said.

But the recent acquittals are instructive on how police and prosecution are failing to get convictions even for those they have managed to nab. Even if the police hunt down the perpetrators of the Maur Mandi blast, the track record does not inspire the confidence that they will be the right people, and that they will be punished.

List of acquittals

After an explosion at Jalandhar bus stand in April 2006 which left three dead and 13 injured and another blast at bus stand in May 2006, police arrested Satnam Singh Satta on June 22, 2006. While Satta was acquitted by a court in 2009, the other three accused are out of country. Balwinder Singh Possi (sentenced to 15 years by a district court in Nevada) is in US, Ranjit Singh Neeta is in Pakistan and Amrik Singh, as per police records, is in Uganda.

On July 8, 1997, a bomb blast in a running train near Lehra Khanna in Bathinda district claimed 35 lives. 66 others were injured. As many as six persons named in the case were acquitted by a court on November 23, 2000. The case stands closed ever since.

In March 2000, a blast in a private bus in a village falling under Fatehgarh Sahib left nine dead and six injured. Three persons arrested in the case were acquitted by a court in June 2003. Pakistan-based terrorist Ranjit Singh Neeta is still wanted by the police in the case.

Two persons were killed and 14 others injured in an explosion in Punjab Roadways bus near village Satnaur in Hoshiarpur district in January 2002. The two men arrested by the police were acquitted by the court on December 14, 2004, while police continue to look for two others who were declared as proclaimed offenders.

Punjab police had arrested four persons, who it said were alleged militants of Babbar Khalsa International, for October 2007 Ludhiana Shingaar Cinema Blast that killed six and injured 37. While one of them, Sandeep Harry, died inside Nabha jail in 2011 during the trial of the case, the other three, Ravinder Singh, Gurpreet Singh and Harminder Singh, were acquitted by the court for lack of evidence.

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