Nearly two months since trial began in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh alleged fake encounter case, majority witnesses, presented by the prosecution to support its case that Sohrabuddin, his wife Kausarbi and associate Tulsiram Prajapati were victims of an extra-judicial killing, have turned hostile. Of the 40 witnesses examined until Wednesday, 27 were declared hostile by the prosecution, while the deposition of one has been deferred for later.
Since November 29, when the media was restrained from reporting trial proceedings by the special CBI court in Mumbai, the trial has seen policemen say they are unable to identify their former colleagues — now accused — present in the court room. Eyewitnesses who gave statements to investigators earlier have said they never saw Sohrabuddin, Kausarbi and Prajapati being abducted from a bus in November 2005.
On November 29, the CBI was to examine the first witness in the case. Even as special public prosecutor B P Raju informed the court that the witness would not be present, a defence advocate moved an application seeking to ban the media from reporting the case. The application was endorsed by advocates of the other accused. The court passed an order the same day, restraining the media from reporting the case “till further orders”.
Since then, the prosecution has examined 40 witnesses to various stages of the alleged conspiracy.
One group of witnesses was declared hostile by the prosecution, after they failed to corroborate their previous statements pertaining to the alleged abduction of Sohrabuddin, Kausarbi and Prajapati from a bus en route to Sangli in Maharashtra in November 2005. These include two co-passengers, the bus driver, cleaner and a man who handed tickets to the passengers.
In their previous statements, the passengers, driver and cleaner had told police that around 1.30 am on November 23, 2005, a Qualis stopped in front of their bus. Three men stepped out, one carrying a firearm, and entered the bus. The witnesses had said that they saw two men and a woman in a burqa being taken out of the bus. But last December, the witnesses told the court that no such thing happened during the journey. Two passengers, a father-son duo, deposed on December 6. The driver and cleaner deposed on December 7.
Even when confronted with their statements recorded before a magistrate under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (which has higher evidentiary value), these witnesses denied the incident. The prosecutor suggested to them that they were lying out of fear because the three passengers had been killed. But the witnesses stuck to the denial, saying they did not know what was written in the statement.
These witnesses identified their signatures on photographs of the three taken by the CBI during investigation but denied identifying them as passengers who were allegedly abducted.
Among the key witnesses who have turned hostile are policemen who were part of the team that allegedly abducted Sohrabuddin, staged an encounter and killed his wife Kausarbi subsequently. Some of these witnesses completely denied their earlier statements, including naming officials they were working under.
One of them, a 41-year old police constable, was a driver of the vehicles of the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad. According to the CBI, he said in his statement that he had accompanied the police team along with accused including Narsinh Dhabi, Santram Sharma and Ajay Parmar to Hyderabad in November 2005. In court, however, he denied that he was part of any such team.
Deposing on December 13, the constable denied making the trip to Hyderabad. He denied that he was present when the alleged encounter of Sohrabuddin took place after his abduction and later at the Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad where the body of Sohrabuddin was taken.
“In the year 2005, I was in ATS Ahmedabad and had not visited any other state. In the year 2005, CID Gujarat took me to Thaltej Society at Ahmedabad and kept me there for 4-5 days and forced me to make statement as desired by them. I do not know the accused sitting in the court hall,” the witness said, refusing to identify seven police officers against whom he had earlier made statements. Similarly, two other policemen from Gujarat and one from Rajasthan denied being part of any such police team. Suggestions by the prosecution that the policemen were deposing falsely to save the accused were denied by them.
Another witness who deposed in December had earlier told investigators that one accused had tampered with the vehicle logbook to hide entries of actual locations. In court on December 23, he denied it, saying his only job was that of a driver and he had not looked into the maintenance of logbooks. When he was asked to identify if any of the policemen he had seen were present in the court room, the witness, without looking around, said a quick ‘no’, prompting the prosecutor to tell him to take a look at least. Only three accused were present in the court room at the time — others had been exempted from appearance.
At one hearing, special judge S J Sharma told a witness, who was refusing to identify any of the accused, that since the police officer had retired, he should not be scared.
Among the others who has turned hostile is the sister of Sohrabuddin who deposed on January 4 through a video-conference link from a jail in Hyderabad where she is lodged. She denied that the CBI made any inquiry with her after the alleged encounter in 2005. She also denied telling the CBI that Sohrabuddin and Kausarbi had visited her brother’s house in Hyderabad in November 2005.
Others who have not supported the prosecution case include the owner of the Qualis vehicle that was allegedly used in the abduction (deposed on December 11); of the employees of the farmhouse where Sohrabuddin and Kausarbi were allegedly confined after the abduction (deposed on December 8); of the employees of the crane service and tempo service used at the time of the alleged disposal of Kausarbi’s body (deposed on December 5 and January 4).
With many of the witnesses deposing in Gujarati, in some instances, defence advocates require to translate their deposition for the prosecution and the court.
Last November, special judge Sharma framed charges against 22 accused, including for offences of murder, criminal conspiracy and destruction of evidence. Of the total 38 accused booked initially, 15 were discharged. The framing of charges against IPS officer Vipul Aggarwal has been stayed by Bombay High Court.
According to CBI, Sohrabuddin, a wanted accused, was abducted and killed in a staged encounter by police officers of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. His wife Kausarbi was killed because she was a witness to the incident. In 2006, Prajapati, another witness to the incident, was also killed.
The case was first investigated by the Gujarat CID and was subsequently transferred to CBI. In 2012, the Supreme Court transferred the case to Mumbai after the CBI submitted that witnesses were being threatened and trial could not be held in a free and fair manner.
The trial court will continue to examine witnesses from February 1.