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Sathankulam Custodial Deaths: Madras High Court issues guidelines for conduct of judicial inquiry [Read Order]

Two traders arrested about a week earlier on charges of having kept their mobile shop open past the COVID-19 curfew died days later in police custody. The Court had taken up the issue suo motu on Wednesday.

Meera Emmanuel

The inquiry into the custodial deaths of 59-year old Jayaraj and his son, Bennix while under the custody of the Sathankulam Police, Thoothukudi will be undertaken by Judicial Magistrate No.1, Kovilpatti.

The two were arrested about a week earlier on charges of having kept their mobile shop open past the COVID-19 curfew.

The Madras High Court Bench comprising of Justices PN Prakash and B Pugalendhi was informed the same by the Tuticorin Police on Friday in the suo motu case registered amid rising unrest over allegations that the deaths ensued following police brutality (Registrar General (Judicial), Madurai Bench of Madras High Court v. State of Tamil Nadu and ors).

In line with the Court's direction on Wednesday, the Police submitted a status report detailing the trail of events before, as well the judicial inquiry launched under Section 176 of the CrPC after the custodial death of the two traders.

The Court, on its part, highlighted that the Principal District Judge, Tuticorin is also personally monitoring the case and briefing the High Court from time to time.

The Court was informed that the post mortem of the bodies was carried out at the Government Hospital, Tirunelveli by a three-member expert team and in the presence of the Judicial Magistrate conducting the inquiry into the custodial deaths. This post mortem was videographed, the Court was told.

Further, it was submitted that the post mortem report will be submitted in a sealed cover to the Court once it is ready. The Court has asked that a copy of the report, in sealed cover, be shared with the Judicial Magistrate conducting the inquiry as well.

The Bench went on issue certain guidelines for the further conduct of the inquiry, while also factoring in that the inquiring judicial officer at Kovilpatti and the family of the deceased at Sathankulam were about 100 km away from each other. The guidelines issued include the following:

  • The Judicial Magistrate No.I, Kovilpatti, may go to Sathankulam for conducting the enquiry, so that the witnesses will be in a position to appear before him and their statements can be recorded.

  • The Judicial Magistrate No.I, Kovilpatti, is also at liberty to visit the family members of the deceased for the purpose of recording the statements of the womenfolk, who may not be in a position to come out, as they will be in the period of mourning.

  • The Judicial Magistrate No.I, Kovilpatti, may also conduct local inspection under Section 310, Cr.P.C., visit the Sathankulam Police Station and take photocopies of all the records, including the Case Diary in the case and the Station General Diary. He may also record the statements of the policemen in the Sathankulam Police Station itself, so that he may get an idea as to where all the deceased were kept during their detention.

  • The Judicial Magistrate No.I, Kovilpatti, shall also take a photocopy of the case diary in the case and the original case diary shall be handed over to the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Tuticorin, for safe custody.

  • The Judicial Magistrate No.I, Kovilpatti, may also visit the place of occurrence for better appreciation of the facts and may also take videographs of the place of occurrence wherever he finds it necessary.

  • The Judicial Magistrate No.I, Kovilpatti, may use the Sathankulam Court premises as a camp office for conducting the enquiry and the staff members of the Sathankulam Court premises shall be at his disposal, till the enquiry is completed.

  • The Judicial Magistrate No.I, Kovilpatti, may visit the Sub Jail, Kovilpatti and take photocopies of all the records, including the admission register and other medical records, duly attested by the Superintendent of the Sub Jail.

  • The Judicial Magistrate, Kovilpatti, shall also collect the CCTV footages wherever they are available and have them preserved.

  • The Tuticorin district administration shall provide all necessary facilities and protection to the Judicial Magistrate No.I, Kovilpatti, thereby enabling him to discharge his functions.

The High Court clarified that these guidelines are only meant to guide the Magistrate and that he is free to conduct the enquiry as per his discretion in line with the ground reality.

This apart, the Court has also directed the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Tuticorin to conduct a separate inquiry into a report received that another inmate of the sub-jail at Kovilpatti, where the deceased were lodged at, had suffered serious injuries and is under treatment for the same.

An enquiry report on this complaint is to be submitted separately by the Chief Judicial Magistrate.

In the wake of the custodial deaths that followed Jeyaraj and Fenix for an arrest citing violation of the COVID-19 curfew, the Police informed the Court that a circular was also issued on Thursday setting out the Standard Operating Procedure for dealing with persons who violate COVID-19 lockdown regulations. While appreciating the initiative, the Court emphasised that the SOP must be implemented in spirit.

Before parting with the order, the Court has also urged that a congenial atmosphere be maintained by the family, the local Bar, the media, the public, political parties and NGOs to enable the Magistrate to conduct the inquiry and so that justice is done.

Read the Order:

Registrar General (Judicial), Madurai Bench of Madras High Court v. State of Tamil Nadu and ors. - June 26 order.pdf
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