A mystery solved

Print edition : May 22, 1999

The SIT had to deal with "a crime that was cunning in conception, meticulous in planning and ruthless in execution," but through sustained efforts it completed the investigation.

"I accept with utmost respect the verdict of the highest court of the land. At the end of the day, I have satisfaction because the court has accepted the findings of our investigation in toto and expressed its appreciation too," said D.R. Karthikeyan, former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and chief of its Special Investigation Team (SIT), who led the investigation into the murder of Rajiv Gandhi.

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated on May 21, 1991, at Sriperumbudur near Chennai, by belt-bomb assassin Dhanu who belonged to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Both the Designated Court and the Supreme Court had no hesitation in concluding that it was the LTTE alone which was responsible for the killing.

A day after the murder, when the Union Government asked Karthikeyan to head the SIT, it had appeared to be a "blind" and unsolvable case. But Karthikeyan put together an efficient investigation team and filed the charge-sheet before the Designated Judge on May 20, 1992, a day before the first anniversary of the assassination. The now-repealed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987 required that the charge-sheet be filed within one year of the police making the first arrest in the case.

After the Supreme Court's judgment in the case on May 11, Karthikeyan told Frontline: "Very few political assassinations get detected, fewer go to court and still fewer end up in conviction. When I took over the investigation, people said it would end up like the (John F.) Kennedy assassination case. Unlike the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, who were caught red-handed, there was no clue here. The investigation was tough because the crime was cunning in conception, meticulous in planning and ruthless in execution. The perpetrators of the crime had taken care to turn back and wipe the trail at every turn, and it was programmed to remain a mystery forever."

V. Prabakaran. The LTTE supremo has been held responsible for the criminal conspiracy to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi.-SRIYANTHA WALAPOLA

The Supreme Court's verdict came as a big relief to the 19 persons, who have been acquitted. After the lower court's verdict, they were lodged in the Central Prisons of Chennai, Vellore and Salem.

"Are you happy?" a reporter asked Subha Sundaram, one of those acquitted, as he stepped out of the Chennai Central Prison on May 12 evening. "After years of suffering and jail life, will I not be happy?" he answered. J. Ranganath, also released from the same prison, said, "I am bitter even though I know I am through." Ranganath threatened to reveal everything to the press including the "motive" behind the assassination and who financed Sivarajan, leader of the LTTE's assassination cell. He said the motive was to create a "political vacuum" in the country. Irumborai, who was released from another prison, found it hard to adjust to the din of the city. "The world outside is noisy," said the short, thin man, managing a smile.

Outside the gates of the Chennai Central Prison, scores of volunteers of the Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam and the Tamil Nadu Marxist Leninist Party gave a noisy welcome to Subha Sundaram and Ranganath. Flanked by Tamil National Party president P. Nedumaran and advocate N. Chandrasekaran, who appeared for the accused in the case, Subha Sundaram fought back tears as he told reporters: "I committed no crime but spent eight years in jail. After the lower court passed death sentence on all of us, we were nonplussed." He appreciated Nedumaran's help in fighting the case in the apex court and praised Senior Advocate N. Natarajan.

THE SIT's first breakthrough in the investigation came from the photographs taken by Haribabu who died in the blast and left behind his camera. The 10 photographs showed Dhanu, garland in hand; Rajiv Gandhi's arrival at the venue of the election meeting; Dhanu moving closer to Rajiv Gandhi; Sivarajan in kurta and pyjama, with a shorthand notebook, and pretending to be a reporter; the crowd at the venue; and then the explosion itself.

Another breakthrough came when the police halted a Sri Lankan Tamil youth on a motorcycle near Vedaranyam in coastal Tamil Nadu. Interrogation of Shankar alias Koneswaran revealed that he was one of the nine-member assassination cell that reached Kodiakkarai near Vedaranyam from the Jaffna peninsula on May 1, 1991. He had a piece of paper with the office phone number of Nalini and the contact number of B. Robert Payas, both accused in the case.

When newspapers published pictures of Sivarajan, Dhanu and others, the SIT office in Chennai received hundreds of phone calls. The information offered by the callers, the interrogation of those present in the crowd and other witnesses helped the SIT to develop the leads which resulted in the arrest of more accused.

A day after the murder, forensic expert Prof. P. Chandra Sekharan had made the sensational disclosure that Rajiv Gandhi's killer was a woman who acted as a human bomb by wearing a denim belt loaded with RDX (Research Department Explosive) and thousands of 2 mm steel pellets.

Karthikeyan told Frontline in May 1992: "In the first seven days after the assassination, the world media speculated whether the crime would remain a mystery forever. But within ten days, we found some slender clues. Within 20 days, we made the first arrests - of Bhagyanathan and Padma. We unearthed substantial evidence in 60 days and made a number of arrests. Within 90 days, we tracked down the main conspirators in Bangalore." The collection of sufficient evidence took the next six months, he said.

The charge-sheet was a painstakingly researched document which dealt with various details of the conspiracy to kill Rajiv Gandhi. It named 41 persons as accused. Of these, three were absconding: Prabakaran, the LTTE supremo, Pottu Amman, its intelligence chief, and Akila, deputy chief of the LTTE's Women's Intelligence Wing. Twelve were dead. The remaining 26 were brought to trial before the Designated Court, Poonamallee, about 30 km from Chennai.

The pre-trial proceedings, that is, arguments by the prosecution and defence lawyers, began before the Designated Judge on May 5, 1993. The court framed charges against the 26 accused on November 24, 1993. The trial, which started on January 19, 1994 with the examination of the witnesses, was held in camera. Of the 1,044 witnesses cited, 288 were examined. The prosecution produced 1,477 documents, which ran to about 10,000 pages. It also produced 1,180 objects of evidence in order to buttress its case. The defence produced 74 documents. The arguments concluded on November 5, 1997. On January 28, 1998, the judge of the Designated Court-1, V. Navaneetham, convicted and sentenced all the 26 accused to death.

D.R. Karthikeyan, who headed the Special Investigation Team of the CBI which cracked the assassination plot.-T.A. HAFEEZ

The accused appealed in the Supreme Court against the death sentence.

The Supreme Court judgment praised Karthikeyan and his team. Justice D.P. Wadhwa, of the three-Judge Bench, observed, "We would also like to record our appreciation for the Special Investigation Team (SIT) constituted by the Central Bureau of Investigation to investigate the case. Under the stewardship of Mr. D.R. Karthikeyan, SIT did assiduous work and was able to solve the crime within a short time. Investigation was meticulous, loose ends tied to bring out a clear picture of conspiracy and the part played by each of the conspirators. Members of SIT performed their job with dedication and determination. They succeeded in their mission but their only regret perhaps was that they could not capture Sivarajan alive."

Senior Advocate N. Natarajan, who led the defence team in the Supreme Court, also praised Karthikeyan. He said, "Mr. Karthikeyan has done a tremendous job with his meticulous investigation, which only he is capable of."

Besides Karthikeyan, the SIT comprised Radhavinod Raju, R. Srikumar, S. Balaji, Salim Ali, Amit Verma, C. Balasubramaniam, Ashok Kumar, D. Manoharan and Y. Chellathurai. The Chief Investigating Officer was K. Ragothaman.

E. Jacob R. Daniel, Special Public Prosecutor and Deputy Legal Adviser to the CBI, worked hard to convert the findings of the SIT investigation into convictions. He appeared for the prosecution both in the trial court and the Supreme Court.

Daniel said he was happy with the sentences handed down by the Supreme Court but was unable to accept the finding that there was paucity of evidence to prove that it was a terrorist act. "The moment you decide to kill a former Prime Minister using a human bomb, your intention is to kill other people also (and strike terror). This is the inference you have to draw from the act," Daniel said. He, however, added: "We are bound by the judgment of the apex court and therefore accept it."

Looking back on his tenure as the SIT chief, Karthikeyan said he accepted the assignment on a couple of conditions: that there should be no political interference in the investigation and that he would not allow his team to use third-degree methods. What caused him agony was the disinformation campaign during the investigation and the consequent attempt to politicise it. He had to deal with the Jain Commission of Inquiry before which all kinds of theories were floated that political parties and personalities were involved in the assassination. There were other complications as well.

Karthikeyan said: "Very often, I was made to feel that it was a thankless job but at the end of the day, I have the satisfaction that there is appreciation from the Supreme Court... Our investigation was appreciated all over the world and by Interpol as a model investigation."

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