The chickens have come home to roost in a 20-year-old custodial death case. And it involves the same duo that is at the heart of the Antilia misadventure; former Assistant Police Inspector Sachin Vaze and deposed Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh. The case was revived last week after being in limbo for four years when the Supreme Court finally heard the special leave petition (SLP) in the Syed Khwaja Yunus case. If ever there was a classic case of justice delayed, this is it. It shows the working of a police force that claims to be ‘second only to Scotland Yard’, the shenanigans of a ‘progressive’ state like Maharashtra and the tortuous journey of a ‘fast-tracked’ case.
The chain of events started on December 2, 2002, when a powerful bomb ripped the rear half of an empty BEST bus parked outside Ghatkopar railway station (W), killing two passers-by and injuring 28 others. It was peak hour (6.45 pm) and sheer providence kept the casualties low. The police initially listed 29 accused under the nowrepealed Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) on the charge that they were part of the conspiracy to bomb the bus as an act of revenge for the post-Godhra riots. Eventually, only 19 were arrested. Some of them were simply hotheads, some were known troublemakers whom the cops wanted to frame and some like Khwaja Yunus, 27, were educated and employed. A software engineer, Yunus was at his hometown Parbhani for his sister’s wedding; his first break after two years in Dubai. Another co-accused, Zahir Sheikh, is an electronics and telecommunications engineer, who was a sales officer with a German firm. Sheikh was released after a year when the Central POTA Review Committee ruled that there was no prima facie evidence linking him to the December 2002 bus blast.
Yunus was arrested on December 25 from Chikhaldara, Washim, where he had gone for a picnic and was last seen alive at Ghatkopar police station on January 6, 2003. The police claimed that he fled from their custody while being taken to Aurangabad as part of the investigation. API Vaze and the three constables escorting him said that their vehicle fell into a gorge after an accident and Yunus had taken the opportunity to escape. Yunus’s father filed a habeas corpus petition before the Bombay high court, relying on the statements of co-accused who said they had seen him being tortured and sought an investigation. One of the co-accused who later testified that in court that the police had tortured Yunus so brutally that he vomited blood was Dr Abdul Mateen. Dr Mateen and 16 other accused in the case were acquitted by the end of 2005. The last accused, Taj-ul-Islam Siddiqui, a software engineer from Hyderabad, was arrested only in 2012 as he was ‘untraceable’ and released after ten months in prison.
Based on the court’s order, the state CID took over the probe in May 2003 and concluded that Vaze had cooked up the escape story. However, this was only after the HC castigated the CID for sitting on the case and threatened to hand it over to the CBI. Vaze and the three constables were arrested on charges of murder and destruction of evidence in March 2004. In October 2006, the state CID sought permission to prosecute 14 policemen in the case but in 2012 the state allowed the prosecution of only four; Vaze and the three constables. The HC upheld the decision.
Thanks to the dilatory tactics of the state government, it was 2018 by the time Dr Mateen, the first witness in the case, deposed in the trial court. He said that he had seen Yunus being stripped and beaten up with belts by four policemen; ACP Praful Bhosale, an ‘encounter specialist’ who has since retired, and senior inspectors Rajaram Vhanmane, Ashok Khot and Hemant Desai. Based on this, then special public prosecutor Dhiraj Mirajkar had moved a plea under Section 319 of the Criminal Procedure Code stating that the four officers too be made to stand trial as accused.
However, the lawyer for the four cops had opposed the application, saying that an SLP was pending in the Supreme Court regarding the prosecution of these policemen. The court had then said it would wait for the decision of the SC. The SLP had been filed in 2014 by none other than Yunus’s mother Asiya Begum – after his father had died of a heart attack – against the Bombay high court order rejecting her plea to prosecute four more police officials who had allegedly tortured her son, causing his death. It was on this SLP that the SC ruled last week, directing the sessions court conducting the trial to proceed with deciding on the application on its own merit without being influenced by the SLP pending in the Supreme Court and asking it to hear the matter expeditiously. Had it not been for the nationwide notoriety earned by Vaze in the Antilia case perhaps, it could have been a longer wait for Yunus’s family.
The trial against the four accused cops started in the sessions court, Mumbai, in January 2018, after many hiccups and the sudden departures of two defence lawyers in quick succession. In June 2015, the special public prosecutor, advocate Yug Chowdhary resigned from the case without attributing any reason. Later in October, the state government removed public prosecutor Deepak Mirajkar. Asiya Begum’s application before the HC seeking the reappointment of Mirajkar is pending.
In June 2020, API Sachin Vaze and the three constables were reinstated via an executive order, thanks to Param Bir Singh. Citing the same reason – staff shortage during the pandemic – the state revoked the suspension of the 14 other policemen indicted by the state CID. On June 12 this year, Asiya Begum, 72, sent a contempt notice to Param Bir Singh, chairman of the review committee revaluating the suspension of the Mumbai police officers.
It’s a small mercy that in 2012, the Bombay high court granted a compensation of Rs 17 lakh to the family of Yunus, noting that he was a “qualified and proficient engineer” who would have earned around Rs 10 cr spread over 34 years taking into account his salary and his age of retirement at 60. It would be in the interests of justice that a compensation of Rs 10cr or more be awarded in this case as an exemplary punishment.
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