[Sathankulam Custodial Deaths] Prima facie, sufficient material for Murder Case against Policemen involved: Madras High Court
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[Sathankulam Custodial Deaths] Prima facie, sufficient material for Murder Case against Policemen involved: Madras High Court

Apprehending that attempts may be made to destroy evidence, the Court also tasked Anil Kumar, the Deputy Superintendent of Police, CB-CID, Tirunelveli as the Investigating Officer until the CBI takes up the investigation

Meera Emmanuel

The Madras High Court today commented that prima facie, it appeared that there was sufficient material to make out a case for murder against the police officers of the Sathankulam Police Station, Thoothukudi, stated to have been involved in the custodial deaths of Jayaraj and his son Bennix (Registrar General (Judicial), Madurai Bench of Madras High Court v. State of Tamil Nadu and ors).

Justices PN Prakash and B Pugalendhi made the observation in the backdrop of a report by the Judicial Magistrate conducting the probe into the custodial deaths that the Santhakulam police officers had been acting to obstruct the probe. Contempt proceedings against three police officers have been initiated by the Court yesterday.

The judicial magistrate had also informed the Court that the Head Constable, Revathy had come forward to spill the beans.

In his June 29 report, the Magistrate had also informed the Court that the Head Constable had been afraid to speak about the case, and that she was initially reluctant to sign her statement.

As per this report, Revathy is also stated to have deposed that Jayaraj and Bennix were beaten until dawn and that there is bound to be blood marks in the lathis used by the police. The Magistrate's report further detailed that the other police officers were either indifferent or had attempted to intimidate the Magistrate when queries were made, including on where their lathis were.

The Court proceeded to opine that,

"... 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 against the Sathankulam policemen who were actively involved in the investigation of the case in Cr.No.312 of 2020."
Madras High Court

In the interests of justice, the Court has now directed that the Head Constable's statement be recorded by a Judicial Magistrate other than the Sathankulam Magistrate or the Magistrate conducting the probe.

The Court has also ordered the Thoothukudi Collector to ensure the safety of the Head Constable and her family.

"Meanwhile, the District Collector, Tuticorin, shall immediately 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 learned Judicial Magistrate No.I, Kovilpatti", the order states.

Directions to ensure evidence is not destroyed before CBI takes charge

Following the Madras High Court's formal nod for the same, the Tamil Nadu Government yesterday transferred the probe into the custodial deaths to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

However, given that the CBI is yet to take the case on its file and since the agency does not have a regional office in Tuticorin or Tirunelveli to commence the investigation, it was noted that the CBI investigation may not commence immediately.

The Judicial Magistrate conducting the probe under Section 176, CrPC also informed the Court that the Sathankulam police are taking advantage of the investigation being in limbo and "attempting to cause disappearance of evidence."

The Court has, therefore, directed Anil Kumar, presently the Deputy Superintendent of Police, CB-CID, Tirunelveli, who was previously in the Special Branch, CID to take over as the investigating officer for now, without waiting for any formal order from the DGP.

The Court observed,

"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 C.B.I take up the case on its file. The C.B.I. does not have an office in Tuticorin or Tirunelveli but only at Madurai. The C.B.I. is essentially an organisation equipped to deal effectively with corruption and whitecollar offences. In the present lock down situation owing to COVID19 pandemic, it is not known how many C.B.I. personnel will be drafted from other wings and made available to assist the Investigating Officer. The Investigating Officer should get acclimatised with the local terrain. On the flip side, the C.B.I. 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 enure to the advantage of the actual perpetrators of the offence."

The Court has directed the handover of all relevant case files, the original statement given by Head Constable Revathy and the preliminary post-mortem reports. The Court has also directed the concerned Magistrate to hand over the original enquiry report in a sealed cover once it is prepared.

Public indignation not a barometer for judicial orders

Before parting with the order, the Bench also responded to possible public outcry over why the Court "took this long" the making observations regarding the possible culpability of the police officers.

"Public indignation cannot be the barometer for judicial orders. Public memory is short, but, judicial orders, especially those of the High Court, which is a Court of record, live for ever."
the Court said.

It added,

"Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor committed the blunder of condemning Jesus Christ to death based on public outcry in a sham trial that was held before dawn and thereafter, washed his hands off with water. We cannot afford to emulate him. Hitherto, in the absence of credible materials, we were handicapped and now that, we have at hand some prima facie incriminatory materials, we decided to fill the gap via our above observations."

The matter will be taken up next on July 2.

Read the order:

Registrar General (Judicial), Madurai Bench of Madras High Court v. State of Tamil Nadu and ors - June 30.pdf

Last Wednesday, the Madurai Bench had decided suo motu to monitor the case, which involves allegations of police brutality, a mechanical remand by the judicial magistrate and inadequate medical treatment leading to the death of Jeyaraj and Bennix while in police custody.

The two were arrested on June 19 citing a violation of the COVID-19 curfew. A judicial inquiry into their deaths, under Section 176, CrPC, is now being conducted by the Judicial Magistrate No. 1, Kovilpatti.

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