Sathankulam custodial death

T. N. custodial deaths prima facie murder: High Court

Print edition : July 17, 2020

Thoothukudi S.P. Arun Balagopalan (centre), Additional Superintendent of Police D. Kumar (left), DSP C. Prathapan (right) arriving to appear before the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court in connection with the Sathankulam custodial deaths, in Madurai on June 30. Photo: PTI

The Madras High Court, which supervises the investigation in the custodial death of the father-son duo in Sathankulam, finds prima facie evidence to slap murder charges against the police.

On June 30, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court ruled that there were prima facie evidences to slap murder charges against the police personnel who were responsible for the custodial deaths of the father and son duo at Sathankulam police station in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu.

Traders P. Jayaraj (60) and his son J. Bennix (32) died in judicial custody after Sathankulam police arrested them on June 19 for violating COVID-19 related lockdown restrictions at Sathankulam town and remanded them the next day at the Kovilpatti Sub Jail (“Police terror”, Frontline, July 17, 2020). The deaths raised a furore across the country and even around the world over police brutality.

Expressing apprehension over the possibility of evidence “disappearing” and being trampled upon, the two-member bench of Justices P. N. Prakash and B. Pugalendhi, which has been monitoring the Sathankulam custodial deaths case suo motu, asked the Tamil Nadu government to hand over the case to the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID). “In our opinion, the ante-mortem injuries found on the bodies of the deceased, coupled with the averments in the report of the learned Judicial Magistrate No.1, Kovilpatti, especially the statement of Revathy, Head Constable, would be prima facie enough to alter the case to one under Section 302 IPC [Indian Penal Code] against the Sathankulam policemen who were actively involved in the investigation of the case,” the bench observed. Judicial Magistrate B.S. Bharathidasan’s report following his visit to the police station to make inquiries served as one of the main documents on the basis of which the High Court took far-reaching decisions.

The court observed that Anil Kumar, Deputy Superintendent of Police of CB-CID, Tirunelveli, need not wait for any administrative orders from the office of the State’s Director General of Police with regard to the investigation of the case. Accordingly, the Registrar of the High Court handed over all documents pertaining to the case to the Tirunelveli Range Deputy Inspector General to be given to the CB-CID officer. The court also noted that the government could gauge the performance of the CB-CID before handing over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) as the State had demanded.

Court’s rationale

The bench explained the rationale behind its decision to institute a CB-CID inquiry as of now. “On account of the stalemate that has occasioned in the investigation due to the request made by the State Government for CBI investigation, we are constrained to step in and fill the vacuum in order to ensure that precious evidence does not get dissipated. If we do not act now, it will become too late, for the consent of the State government should be accepted by the Central government and only thereafter, can the CBI take up the case on its file,” it pointed out.

Further, it noted that the CBI did not have an office in Thoothukudi or Tirunelveli, but only at Madurai. “It is essentially an organisation equipped to deal effectively with corruption and white collar offences. In the present lockdown situation owing to COVID-19 pandemic, it is not known how many CBI personnel will be drafted from other wings and made available to assist the Investigating Officer. On the flip side, the CBI does not even have a Special Public Prosecutor in the Madurai Bench to appear in bail and anticipatory bail applications that may soon follow suit. All this will ensure to the advantage of the actual perpetrators of the offence,” the court opined.

The court also expressed its concern at the volatile situation the Kovilpatti magistrate faced at the Sathankulam police station when he went there to conduct the inquiry on the court’s instructions. The judges said: “From the report of the learned Judicial Magistrate No.I, Kovilpatti, we are able to discern that the Sathankulam police are taking advantage of the fact that the investigation of the case is in limbo and are attempting to cause disappearance of evidence. In fact, they were emboldened enough to even intimidate the judicial officer to put spokes in the wheel of his enquiry.”

In his report, Kovilpatti Judicial Magistrate B.S. Bharathidasan, the investigation officer appointed by the High Court under Section 176 (1) (1-A) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) in the case, had disclosed the concerted efforts of the Sathankulam policemen, D. Kumar, Additional Superintendent of Police, Tuticorin; C. Prathapan, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Sathankulam Sub Division; and constable Maharajan to scuttle the inquiry. “Therefore, we registered a suo motu criminal contempt proceedings being Contempt Petition against them yesterday [June 29] and summoned them to be present in person before us today.” The court adjourned the contempt proceedings to a later date.

It also ordered the State government to provide security to a woman head constable, Revathy, of Sathankulam police station, who is a signed witness to the violence unleashed on the father and son immediately after their arrest on the night of June 19. “In this regard, it would be in the interests of justice to have the statement of Revathy, Head Constable, recorded under Section 164 CrPC by a Judicial Magistrate, other than the Judicial Magistrate No.1, Kovilpatti, and Judicial Magistrate, Sathankulam.”

The court directed the District Collector, Tuticorin, to ensure the safety of Revathy and her family members. “She may even be granted leave from duty as we fear that there will be attempt to intimidate her and make her resile from her version” given to the Kovilpatti Judicial Magistrate, the judges felt.

Intimidatory tactics

Judicial Magistrate Bharatidasan, in his report, a copy of which is available with Frontline, had detailed the bizarre happenings that took place at the Sathankulam police station when he went to conduct the inquiry on June 28. Additional Superintendent of Police D. Kumar and Thoothukudi Deputy S.P. C. Prathaban (both waitlisted and transferred since) who were present at that time behaved indifferently and menacingly, the report said. The policemen who were present on the premises also behaved irresponsibly. “They refused to cooperate and even mocked and jeered at us,” Bharatidasan recorded.

The report further says that the CCTV footage on June 19 when the father and son were arrested and tortured in the police station was found deleted. “It was programmed in such a way that though adequate storage space was available, the video recordings were deleted automatically. However I seized the hard disk and [have kept] it in my custody. The Tahsildhar, Sathankulam, assisted us to being a computer technician so that deleted data could be recovered,” he noted. He also noted that constable Revathy was frightened to give any statement. “She had to be consoled and after much reluctance, she signed the witness statement,” he said.

For free and fair probe

Earlier, on June 29, the bench accused the police of interfering in the judicial probe and urged the Tamil Nadu government to “intervene immediately” and transfer the officials concerned at the Sathankulam police station. Otherwise, the court observed, it would be difficult to ensure a “free and fair investigation and enquiry” on the issue. In an unprecedented move in Tamil Nadu, it directed the District Collector, Thoothukudi, who is also the District Magistrate, “to depute Revenue Officers to the Sathankulam Police Station, for the purpose of preserving the clue materials”.

The report submitted to the Registrar of the High Court, who also is the petitioner in the suo motu case, claimed that the police were taking videos of the magisterial proceedings. “The policemen were not giving the records called for by the learned magistrate and it is seen that one of them, viz., Maharajan, police constable, Sathankulam police station, had made a disparaging remark in Tamil” to the effect that they could nothing.

During the hearing, Additional Advocate General K. Chellapandian told the court that the State government intended to transfer the investigation of the case to the CBI after getting the court’s formal nod. Responding to it, the judges observed: “Though we appreciate the deference shown to this court by the State government, we make it clear that, to transfer or not to transfer the case to the CBI is the policy decision of the State government and such a transfer is governed by the provisions of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946.”

Since the transfer of the case to the CBI would involve “certain procedural formalities” and “which may consume a reasonable time”, the court, in order to ensure the continuance of a free and fair investigation, issued a charter of directions “on the premise that the case was likely to be transferred to the CBI”. It asked its Registrar (Judicial) to get a photocopy of the preliminary post-mortem certificates, certify them and keep them in safe custody before sending the original post-mortem certificates in a sealed cover to the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Thoothukudi, who, in turn, would hand over the same to the Investigating Officer, CBI.

It further instructed that the DSP, Kovilpatti Range, hand over all relevant case diaries of the incident to the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Thoothukudi, for safe custody, from whom the CBI would get it. The court also instructed the S.P. of Thoothukudi district to hand over the Case Diary and other related records in Sathankulam police station to the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Thoothukudi, who would hand it over to the CBI.

On June 24, the court was told that Balakrishnan and Raghuganesan, Sub Inspectors of Police, Sathankulam police station, had been placed under suspension while Inspector Sridhar was kept in waiting (he has since been suspended). The court ordered that a team of three experts do the post-mortem and that the same be videographed. It directed the Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi District administrations “to keep the public informed of the fact that the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court is closely monitoring the case and thereby, instil confidence in them”.

Status report

The status report on the case filed by S.P. Arun Balagopalan (since then transferred and put on waiting list) before the court claimed that the deceased, when asked to close down their shop for violating the lockdown rules, abused and prevented the police constables from discharging their official duty and threatened them with dire consequences.

The report says: “Both of the accused were arrested at 23.30 hrs on 19.06.2020 by the investigation officer. They were produced before the duty doctor of GH (Government Hospital), Sathankulam, for medical examination, produced before the Judicial Magistrate, Sathankulam, and remanded to judicial custody at 14.30 hrs on 20.06.2020 at Sub Jail, Kovilpatti. It is submitted that at 23.00 hrs. on 22.06.2020, Sankar, Jail Superintendent, Sub Jail, preferred a complaint at Kovilpatti East Police Station stating that Bennicks, remand prisoner concerned in Sathankulam P.S. (Police Station), was admitted at Government Hospital, Kovilpatti, by the authorities of Sub Jail, Kovilpatti, at 19.45 hrs on 22.06.2020.” Subsequently, Jayaraj too was admitted to the hospital, and both died in quick succession.

After perusing the S.P’s status report, the High Court asked the Judicial Magistrate, Kovilpatti, to conduct local inspection under Section 310 of the CrPC and visit the Sathankulam police station and take photocopies of all the records relating to the Sathankulam case (Cr No.312), including the Case Diary and the Station General Diary.

Besides, it asked the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Thoothukudi, to conduct an inquiry and submit a report on one Raja Singh, son of Soosai of Melapalayam, Sathankulam taluk, an inmate of the Sub Jail, Kovilpatti, who had also suffered serious injuries and was under treatment.

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