The Truth Serum trial

Print edition : March 12, 2004

A narco-analysis test on Abdul Karim Telgi, the mastermind behind the stamp paper scam, yields an immense amount of information, but doubts are raised about its value as evidence.

in Mumbai

Abdul Karim Telgi being taken for interrogation by the SIT in Bangalore on January 24.-

ON December 22, 2003, doctors at the government-run Victoria Hospital in Bangalore prepared a cocktail containing three grams of sodium pentathol and 3,000 ml of distilled water and dextrose. Popularly known as "Truth Serum", it was intravenously administered to a patient over a period of three hours. The rate of administration was so controlled that the patient was slowly driven into a hypnotic trance. The patient was none other than Abdul Karim Telgi, mastermind of the Rs.3,000-crore stamp paper scam, is perhaps the largest case of fraud in the country's history. In order to get him to talk, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) leading the probe obtained permission from the Pune Bench of the Mumbai High Court to conduct a series of scientific tests on Telgi.

The SIT presented the findings of the narco-analysis test in court on February 10, 2004, and the court is yet to decide whether the revelations can be used as evidence. Investigators say that as the drugs took effect and the questioning began, Telgi sang like a canary. He named prominent people with whom he had had monetary transactions; explained his modus operandi, revealed places where he operated, his business associates, how he started his racket, the number of bank accounts he had, and what he owned. A copy of the narco-analysis report prepared by the Karnataka Forensic Laboratory, which Frontline procured, gives details of the test and Telgi's revelations. However, the most damaging information - the names of the persons involved - had been blacked out. "A substantial amount of information tumbled out of Telgi, but to reveal names at this stage would seriously hinder the investigation process," said Raja Thakare, lawyer for the SIT.

Before being subjected to the narco-analysis test, Telgi had undergone a polygraph or lie-detector test and a brain-mapping test. We need to corroborate all the information and substantiate it with other evidence before people can be charged, Thakare pointed out. Among the prominent names that have not been protected is that of former Mumbai Commissioner of Police R.S. Sharma, who Telgi says "was his good friend and helped him in the business and to sell all his goods at Mumbai". He says that he paid Rs.22 lakhs to Sharma, who was arrested in November 2003. Andhra Pradesh legislator Krishna Yadav, another friend of Telgi's, was supposedly paid Rs.32 lakhs.

Although some of the vital information contained in the report has not been disclosed, some damning material has been made public. The report states that when Telgi was questioned about the role of politicians and police officers in his stamp paper business, he said, "People who were in charge of the stamp paper business in each State were carrying out the business and had their own way to contact politicians and police officers." When asked about the involvement of police officers and politicians in Karnataka, Telgi refused to give names stating that there was a threat to his life. Under persistent questioning he revealed that the "threat to his life came from VVIPs and senior police officers". He also disclosed that he had "relations with some Ministers in the Karnataka Cabinet, Members of the Legislative Assembly, the Director-General of Police, Superintendents of Police, Assistant Commissioners of Police (ACP) and even Police Inspectors".

The Telgi scam involved printing and selling counterfeit stamp paper worth thousands of crores of rupees across seven States through a network that was reportedly initiated in 1995 by Telgi, a resident of Belgaum. Telgi started off by apparently colluding with officials of the India Security Press (ISP) in Nashik to purchase second hand equipment from the press and print fake stamp paper, which was sold through licensed agents at attractive discounts across the country. He ran the racket for a year before it was busted. But by that time he had built a thriving business with the help of agents and the complicity of police officials. Telgi was arrested in 2001 and lodged in the Bangalore jail.

It was only after Anna Hazare, the anti-corruption crusader, filed a public interest petition in July 2003 that the magnitude of the scam began to unravel. Since November 2003, the SIT investigations have led to the arrest of an unprecedented number of senior police officers in Maharashtra. As many as 65 persons have been arrested in connection with the scam and several more heads are likely to roll as the investigations continue.

Telgi's revelations may have provided important leads to the SIT, but the method used to extract information from the accused is being questioned. The use of scientific tests, particularly the narco-analysis procedure, has caused a furore among defence lawyers and human rights activists. Whether the information collected from the tests is admissible as evidence in court, whether the SIT is justified in conducting the test on Telgi, whether the information is credible, and whether the method of questioning was ethical or even legal are some of the points that are hotly debated.

On February 23, 2004, the Pune Bench of the Bombay High Court will decide the validity and evidential value of the scientific tests. Thakare, who initiated the use of scientific tests on Telgi, says, "The test results are not enough evidence to convict people. It should be looked at as a tool or an aid towards guiding us in the right direction or supporting evidence." Thakare, who is also the prosecution lawyer in the case, asks, "These people keep claiming they are innocent. If they are innocent why are they scared to go through the tests?"

According to a defence lawyer who prefers to remain unnamed, there are legal lapses in interrogation with the aid of drugs. For instance, he points out, the narco-analysis report has no evidential value as the test violates Article 20(3) of the Constitution, which states that "no person accused of any offence can be compelled to be a witness against himself". In addition, interrogators are not permitted to ask leading questions, he says. That was reportedly the manner in which the investigators questioned Telgi. "The narco tests are a very primitive form of investigation. Developed countries have stopped using this form of enquiry," he says. According to him, there are discrepancies in the information collected when Telgi was in a trance and when he was out of the drugged state. For example, during the Truth Serum test he initially admits to have deposited Rs.2,000 crores with the Bangalore police, but later says that the amount was Rs.2 crores. Eventually, he cannot decide the exact amount he deposited. And in a "normal" condition he denies everything. In another instance, he says that he paid Sharma Rs.22 lakhs and later denies it saying, "It is wrong and fabricated." The narco-analysis report, however, says that the entire procedure has been recorded on video and audio and that it will be available for scrutiny when the case comes up in court. With regard to the line of questioning, the report says, "the questions were designed carefully and were repeated persistently in order to reduce the ambiguities during drug interrogation."

According to S.S. Jog, a former Director-General of Police, Maharashtra, the use of scientific tests is a new trend in investigation. Usually, investigators use it for questioning terrorists or people who have committed heinous crimes, he said. "We need to put it in the context as to why the SIT felt compelled to use it on Telgi. Initially when the stamp paper case came up and Telgi was discovered, the police had no clue about the expanse of his empire. They thought it was a small racket concerning the circulation of some fake stamp paper," Jog told Frontline. It was only after the court instituted an SIT probe into the matter, on the public interest petition, that the scale of the scam became known. But Telgi refused to talk. "What did he stand to lose," asks Jog, "when he was already arrested?"

The intention of using `Truth Serum' was to help investigators with leads and to corroborate evidence that had been already gathered. Unfortunately, police officers, even if guilty of having accepted money from Telgi, have nonetheless been made scape goats for the real culprits. Meanwhile, 1,300 hours of tapped phone conversations between Telgi and his friends and associates have been transcribed by the SIT. Phone calls have powerful evidential value in court. SIT sources say many of the arrests made in connection with the Telgi scam were based on the calls. Now that the transcriptions are almost complete, they may not require the scientific tests, to nail many more culprits.

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