After a 13 years, 27-year-old Udayakumar’s aged mother Prabhavati received justice this week when a CBI special court in Thiruvananthapuram pronounced five police officers guilty of involvement in the torture and death of her son in custody. While two of the officers have been awarded the capital punishment for murder, three others have been handed over jail sentences for abetment to crime and destruction of evidence. A sixth officer passed away during trial.
Udayakumar’s chilling murder in September 2005 after his brutal torture in custody, during which a heavy iron pipe was deliberately rolled down his thighs by the cops, brought thousands of people in Kerala on the streets demanding swift punishment for the perpetrators. It also caused a lot of embarrassment for the then-UDF government led by Oommen Chandy.
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The killing of Udayakumar, taken into custody on false charges of theft from a public park, produced a lot of consternation among the civil society about the police’s use of third-degree torture methods to extricate confessions. However, it was not the first time the police had employed such methods in custody and there’s evidence that such methods continue to be used even today.
Here are some prominent cases of suspected custody killings in Kerala which have brought people on the streets rooting for justice:
Rajan case during the Emergency
P Rajan was a final year student of engineering in Kozhikode in March 1976 when he was allegedly whisked off by the police on charges of being a Naxal at a time when the Emergency was in effect in the country. His father, Prof TV Eachara Warrier, fought a long battle after his son went missing. After the Emergency was lifted, Warrier filed a habeas corpus petition to which the court responded by asking the then-government of K Karunakaran to file a response. The government and police authorities subsequently told the court that though Rajan was never officially taken into custody or produced before a magistrate, he infact died in unlawful police custody. The chief minister was forced to resign over massive public furore. Till this day, Rajan’s remains have not been found.
Detention of Gopi in 1988
Gopi, a24-year-old resident of Cherthala in Alappuzha district, was summoned to the local police station in October 1988 to question him about a robbery. Two days later, he was found dead. The police contended that he had committed suicide, but the tube-light injury to his stomach led his father to believe that his son was tortured and murdered by the police. For more than a decade, Gopi’s father Thankappan preserved his son’s body in formalin in his courtyard refusing to cremate his body until the police launched a fair probe. Gopi’s body was finally cremated in 1999. In 2008, a First Class Judicial Magistrate Court in Cherthala awarded one-year rigorous imprisonment to two officers for Gopi’s ‘illegal detention’, three years after Thankappan’s death.
Sampath murder case
On March 23, 2010, Sheela, wife of a prominent businessman in Puthur in Palakkad district, was murdered by three men at her home. Within a week of the murder, Sampath was arrested by the police and booked as first accused in Sheela’s murder but before he could be produced before the magistrate, he was found dead. The family of Sampath alleged that he was tortured and killed by the police under pressure from Sheela’s relatives. The case was later handed over to the CBI which arrested four officers in connection with the case in 2011. Several officials were suspended in the wake of Sampath’s death.
Sreejeev’s murder in 2014
On May 19, 2014, Sreejeev, a resident of Kulathur near Thiruvananthapuram, was asked to appear before the Parassala police in connection with a break-in at a mobile phone shop. But two days later, he died after reportedly consuming pesticide crystals. The police theory was that he committed suicide but an inquiry report by K Narayana Kurup, a former HC judge and then chairman of the State Police Complaint Authority (SPCA), suggested that it could be a case of custody killing. The case was largely ignored until Sreejeev’s younger brother, Sreejith undertook a long sit-in in front of the state secretariat demanding justice. It was after Sreejith protested for 775 days that the CBI agreed to register an FIR in the case and begin an impartial probe. Sreejith’s long agitation received thunderous support on social media and on the streets of Kerala.
Sreejith’s death in Varapuzha
Sreejith, a 28-year-old tile worker, was picked up by the police from his home in Varapuzha in Ernakulam district in connection with a mob attack on a neighbouring house on April 6 this year. However, three days later, Sreejith died in a private hospital as a result of injuries sustained during alleged custodial torture. His family claimed that he was mercilessly beaten by the officers at the Varapuzha station and not even given a glass of water to drink. It was also later revealed that Sreejith’s arrest was a case of mistaken identity as the police were looking to arrest someone by the same name. The special crime branch of the Kerala Police is probing the case and has arrested several officers, including sub-inspector Deepak, who reportedly led the torture.