The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Saturday said lawyer Sanjeev Punalekar and his aide Vikram Bhave, who were recently arrested on charges of helping the alleged killers of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar carry out the murder in 2013, were not cooperating in the interrogation. The agency also said a ‘forensic psychological assessment’ of Punalekar had been conducted in custody and the report was awaited.
Punalekar (53) and Bhave (34) were arrested by the agency on May 25. They were produced before the court on Saturday after their first custodial remand ended. The court of Additional Sessions Judge A V Rotte extended their custody till June 4. The CBI had claimed that Punalekar was not only part of the overall murder conspiracy, but he also instructed Sharad Kalaskar, allegedly one of the two men who shot Dabholkar dead, to dismantle a set of firearms, including the one used in the murder of Gauri Lankesh.
The agency had also claimed that Bhave, a Sanatan Sanstha member who was arrested along with Punalekar, not only helped the alleged shooters of Dabholkar conduct a reconnaissance of the murder site, but also in arranging the motorcycle they used to ride to the site, as well as dispose of it later. According to the CBI, Bhave told Kalaskar and the other alleged shooter, Sachin Andure, about the escape routes after committing the murder.
Seeking extension of their CBI custody, Special Public Prosecutor Prakash Suryavanshi argued before the court, “He (Punalekar) has crossed all his limits as an advocate. He has claimed that the communication between him and his client was privileged. He had advised destruction of firearms to Sharad Kalaskar and accordingly he has done so. The advice to destroy the evidence cannot be considered as legal advice and thus is not privileged. We want Punalekar’s custody as he has given advice to many more members of Sanatan Sanstha and we want to get more information… He is not cooperating….”.
He said that as part of the investigation, the CBI has seized a cell phone and two laptops belonging to Punalekar and the agency was yet to question him about the data recovered from these devices. He also told the court that during the probe, a ‘forensic psychological assessment’ and some associated tests have been conducted on Punalekar, and the reports were awaited.
The special public prosecutor added, “Vikram Bhave has shown the way of escape to the two assailants… along with conducting the recce. He has also disposed of the motorcycle. He, too, is not cooperating in the investigation. We are yet to get information about the vehicle used in the crime. As both of them are not cooperating in the investigation, their further custody is needed.”
Subhash Jha, who represented Punalekar, argued that the two arrests have been made on the basis of a statement given by Kalaskar to the Karnataka Police in October last year while probing the Gauri Lankesh murder case. He questioned the delay in making the arrests and also the admissibility of Kalaskar’s statement in the case. Jha also pointed out that the names of Punalekar and Bhave were not in the supplementary chargesheet filed against Kalaskar and Andure in February.
Bhave’s lawyer, Ghanshyam Upadhyay, questioned the validity of the arrest by the CBI and argued that no progress had been made by the agency after the arrest. After hearing both sides, the court extended the police custody of Punalekar and Bhave by three days, as against the request for two weeks by the CBI.
Punalekar, an office-bearer of the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad, a lawyer’s body, has provided legal representation to several Sanatan Sanstha members and other Hindutva activists accused in other cases. He had not only appeared for some of the accused in the Dabholkar case but was also quoted in the media. Bhave, a Sanatan Sanstha member, was convicted in a case of blasts on the premises of some theatres and auditorium in Thane in 2008. He was released on bail in 2013. Bhave had been assisting Punalekar in his legal work, sources said.
Dabholkar was shot dead on the Omkareshwar Bridge in Pune on August 20, 2013. Lankesh, a Bengaluru-based journalist, was killed at her residence in September 2017.