Hyderabad Disha encounter case: Inside details of Commission's hearing

A huge portion of the time that the Commission spent in the first schedule went into questioning the third witness — J Surender Reddy, the investigating officer of the encounter case.
A collage of the encounter site and the four accused who were later shot down by the police
A collage of the encounter site and the four accused who were later shot down by the police
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On the night of November 28, 2019, a young veterinary doctor was kidnapped, and later gang-raped and murdered. The perpetrators then dumped her body on the outskirts of Hyderabad and burnt it. The details of how the young woman, Disha (name changed), was kidnapped and raped shocked everyone. The events that followed, which included the identification, arrest and encounter of the accused, had garnered national attention. 

Chennakesavulu, Jollu Shiva, Jollu Naveen and Mohammad Arif were suspected of committing the crime. On December 6, 2019, the police shot dead the four accused at Chatanpally in Ranga Reddy district, reportedly when they tried to 'escape from custody'. The police claimed that the four accused were killed in an exchange of fire at the crime scene when they were taken for a crime scene recreation. 

Six days later, on December 12, 2019, the Supreme Court appointed a three-member inquiry committee to probe the circumstances that led to the killing of the four accused — former Supreme Court judge VS Sirpurkar, former Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) chief DR Karthikeyan and former Bombay High Court judge RP Sondurbaldota. The Commission started its inquiry into the Disha encounter case in the first week of February 2020. 

On August 21 this year, the three-member inquiry Commission commenced the first schedule of the cross-examination of witnesses. While the Commission was to cross-examine six witnesses in the first schedule, only three could be examined in the hearings that followed on August 26, 27, and 28. As the cross-examination concluded recently, several details, including glaring lapses on the part of the investigating officer of the encounter case, have come to light.

Third witness: Investigating officer 

A large chunk of the time that the Commission spent in the first schedule went into questioning the third witness — J Surender Reddy, the investigating officer (IO) of the encounter case, who is also an additional Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) from the Rachakonda police. Virupaksha Gowda, the Commission’s advocate, and K Parameshwar, an advocate appointed by the Supreme Court to assist the Commission, questioned the investigating officer. Several times during the questioning, they brought up the alleged discrepancies in the police version of the encounter. At one point, the IO admitted to overlooking many aspects raised by the Commission during the cross-examination, while conducting his investigation.

Surender Reddy was cross-examined for over two days. TNM reached out to some of those who attended the hearing and witnessed the cross-examination. Details of some of the critical questions posed to the investigation officer are below:

CCTV footage: Surender Reddy was questioned about the CCTV footage at two places — the guest house that was used as a safe house to keep the four accused after they were arrested and at the Shadnagar police station, where the accused were first brought. 

In the affidavit, the investigation officer mentioned that he was orally informed by the station house officer (SHO) of Shadnagar police station that the CCTV cameras were not functioning at the time when they were initially arrested. However, in a notable contradiction, the police affidavit said that the Shadnagar police station did not have any CCTV cameras. 

The fact that no CCTV footage was collected from any of the locations where the four men were lodged raised several questions among the Commission officials. The investigation officer, however, maintained that the various witnesses and details that had been obtained made the CCTV footage unnecessary.

Safety latch on guns: When asked if the police personnel had turned on the safety latch of their guns while escorting the accused, Surender Reddy said that while protocol necessitates so, in this particular case, the latch was not on. In the cross-examination it was also revealed that  three police officers at the location had arms on them at the time of the encounter.

Distance from where police fired: The investigation officer informed the Commission that the rounds were fired from a distance ranging between 26 and 45 feet. When asked how this was calculated, Surender Reddy said the details were collected during the preliminary investigation.

Timing of handing over accused to prison: The counsel inquired whether the lock-up rules in the police manual allowed the accused to be handed over to the prison late in the night, as in this case. The investigation officer deflected the question, stating it was a matter related to the prison department. However, the Commission mentioned that as the IO of the case, it was imperative for the officer to be aware of all the rules.

Fingerprints of accused on weapons: The IO said that the fingerprints of the accused couldn’t be traced on the weapons used to shoot at the police, due to the rough surface of the weapons. He also mentioned that the fingerprints of the accused were neither found on the pistol pouches of the police personnel nor on the sticks and rods that the police claimed the accused had attacked them with.

Response to Disha’s sister’s claim: Responding to Disha’s sister’s statement that the police never contacted her after the encountering killings, the investigating officer said replied he wasn’t aware why she stated so. During the cross-examination, it also came to light that the articles belonging to Disha were not sent for forensic analysis.

Delay in collecting gunshot residue: As part of the cross-examination, the IO informed the Commission that the weapons used by the police to fire at the accused were immediately seized after the incident. He also mentioned that cotton swabs from the weapons for testing Gunshot Residue (GSR) were collected at 6 pm, hours after he encounter killings. However, the counsel pointed out that it was imperative that the GSR test be conducted immediately after the incident. This lapse was also noted by the Commission.

Several times during the hearing, one could sense that the mood was against the police and the investigating officer. The Commission noted several lapses highlighted by the counsel, and the body language and behaviour of the IO. They also stated that if it wasn’t a fact-finding committee, they would probably also make a record of how the officer wasn’t forthcoming.

Second witness: Disha’s sister 

Disha’s sister, who was the second witness to be cross-examined, told the Commission that the police never contacted her after she had filed the complaint of Disha's missing nor after the encounter killings. However, the investigating officer said that the police had contacted the sister and that it was she who had identified the recovered cell phone and other belongings of Disha. While the counsel representing the state also posed certain questions to Disha’s sister, the Commission took strong objection to the nature of those questions.

First witness: Telangana Home Secretary

Among the six witnesses to be examined in the first schedule, the first was Telangana Home Secretary Ravi Gupta. He was asked a barrage of questions by the advocates of the Commission and advocates representing the police. In his affidavit, the Home Secretary had confidently stated that the action taken by the police officers in the exchange of fire was in self-defence and that it would not amount to the legal definition of murder. The Commission examined and deliberated upon this point. 

The Commission also raised several questions based on the affidavit filed by the top bureaucrat:

> Any witnesses other than the police personnel

> Whether all rules as laid down in the police manual were followed

> Whether the senior officers issued any warnings before the shooting at the accused

> Why the FIR registered after the encounter named the four men as the accused, and not the police officials involved 

> Why the nature of the injuries that the police personnel suffered in the melee was not specified. The affidavit merely mentioned it as simple or grievous injuries. The Commission asked the bureaucrat to submit the relevant documents in this regard.  

The Commission also observed that the Telangana government did not carry out a judicial inquiry into the incident as mandated by law. Several answers by the Home Secretary were vague and he often stated he would have to verify the records to submit the relevant documents.  

Speaking to TNM, PV Krishnamachary, independent counsel for the families of the victims of the encounter said they were content over the way the proceedings were progressing. “The Commission members and the advocates representing them are asking detailed questions and I appreciate them. Several intricate details and loopholes have been exposed in the cross-examination by the Commission. Three out of the four victims of the encounter were juveniles. Instead of sending them to the juvenile court, they were sent to jail, which the Commissioner noted. I am hopeful that those responsible for the encounter will surely be identified and punished,” he said. According to the counsel, age of the four victims killed in the encounter and that three of them were minors will eventually become an important point of discussion during future proceedings. Though the relatives of some of them had come all the way to attend the first schedule of the hearing, their turn for cross-examination did not come up.      

The Commission will resume the examination of the witnesses in the second schedule on September 1. The judges will be seated at the Commission’s office within the Telangana High Court premises. As part of the second schedule, the examination of the investigating officer of the encounter case, Surender Reddy, will continue. The parents of the accused and other state witnesses will also be examined. The IO of the rape case and the members of the police personnel who were present during the exchange of fire will also be examined in future hearings.

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