With the amount of forensic evidence that was found at the scene of crime at the Sri Durga Ladies hostel in Ibrahimpatnam near Vijayawada in December 2007, the rape and murder case of pharmacy student Ayesha Meera should ideally have been a cakewalk for the sleuths.
There was semen, hair and footprints which were analysed by the then Andhra Pradesh Forensic experts. Eights months later, the police charged P Satyam Babu with the crime most foul. On Friday, seven years after Babu was convicted by a lower court, the Hyderabad High court ruled him not guilty.
âAre all three - semen trace, footprints and hair samples - matching with Satyam Babu?â a senior officer had asked one of the investigating officers in Vijayawada after Babu was arrested in August 2008.
âYes, pucca,â he replied.
The High Court threw that assertion out of the window. Surprising, that the top cop should have said that, unless he had not met Babu at all. Because Satyam Babu suffers from a neurological disorder that moving fast is a task for him.
Was it possible for this man to breach the hostel wall, climb up the stairs, open the gate and rape and murder Ayesha without any of the other 20-odd inmates hearing anything? In fact, when the Vijayawada court sentenced him to 14 years in prison, Ayesha's mother Shamshad Begum exclaimed that an innocent man had been framed.
The brutality of the murder had shocked Andhra Pradesh. In the early hours of 27 December, 2007, Ayesha's blood soaked body had been found in the hostel bathroom with evidence suggesting that her head had been banged against the wall to make her unconscious before she was raped.
The needle of suspicion from the time the murder came to light pointed to Koneru Sateesh, the grandson of the then Municipal Administration minister Koneru Ranga Rao. Another suspect was Congress leader C Madhav Rao. But the police was rather quick to rule out any connection to Satish based on the evidence found. That included a love letter allegedly written by the killer, blood stains on Ayesha's dress and a handwritten word âChirutha' (leopard) using a marker written on Ayesha's chest.
Subsequently the police blundered its way to find the killer, with intense political, public, media and family pressure to crack the case at the earliest. An attempt was made to defame Ayesha with insinuations leaked in local media that she was in a relationship with her uncle. When that theory was punctured for lack of evidence, they arrested Sivanjaneyulu from Hyderabad and declared him to be the murderer. Nothing was found against Sivanjaneyulu as well.
Continuing the wild goose chase, Gurvinder Singh alias Laddu who was already in Rajahmundry jail on rape charges was suspected of having carried out the crime. But no evidence was found that Laddu had managed to step out of jail on 27 December.
Senior officers, some of who have also served in Vijayawada police are shocked and embarrassed at the High court verdict. In hindsight, they admit that the mistake was not to secure the scene of crime immediately. âThe case was killed in the first 24-48 hours,'' one of them said, suggesting that the evidence was compromised making the subsequent FSL analysis dubious.
The Telugu Desam Party, then in the opposition, alleged that then chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy had asked Ayesha's father Syed Iqbal Basha to accept Rs 75,000 and close the case. It was claimed that this conversation took place in the presence of Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi. The MIM leader denies YSR said anything to this effect and says on the contrary, the CM was very sympathetic towards Basha.
But that there was political pressure is not ruled out. Even though Ranga Rao, who passed away in 2010, dramatically offered to quit politics if his grandson was involved in the heinous crime, it was obvious that the police were under tremendous pressure to hang someone as soon as possible. Rao was a powerful minister in YSR's cabinet and one year before Andhra Pradesh was to go to polls in 2009, even the suggestion of the involvement of the kith and kin of a senior Congress leader in the politically sensitive and important Krishna district could have proven disastrous.
In the midst of the investigation, Vijayawada police commissioner CV Anand sought a transfer out of the city in March, with speculation rife that the unsolved Ayesha case had something to do with his moving out.
But despite the political pressure, a polygraph test was done on Satish. Not that the test reports are admissible as evidence but they only reinforced the doubt. The reports revealed that Satish's response to two questions, including whether he knew the hostel owner, was not accurate.
With the case not disappearing from the headlines, Satyam Babu arrested in a phone theft case, was reported to have confessed to the murder. Subsequently when he was taken for medical examination, the police claimed he escaped from the custody of ten policemen.
Dalit organisations protested suspecting it was a time-tested ploy to bump off Babu in a fake encounter to kill the case once and for all. It was then that he was shown as arrested once again. The police story that suggested a crippled man escaped police custody, was full of holes. Was it a case of the police trying to impress their political superiors or someone else writing the script, is anyone's guess.
The court asking for punishment to be meted out to the investigating officers for framing Satyam Babu is a slap on the face of the Andhra Pradesh police. What it does is to once again focus attention on how a rape and murder case was compromised at different levels of the police machinery, possibly under instructions from its political bosses.
The judgement given by the Vijayawada court also comes under the radar. Observers say on many occasions, lower courts deliver erroneous verdicts because they are unable to withstand the pressure that the presence of senior police officers in court and the pressure the public and media put on them.
While it is almost certain that the Andhra Pradesh police will go to Supreme Court, Satyam Babu will step out of jail with a pittance of Rs 1 lakh compensation that will be handed over to him in return for the nine years he spent behind bars for a crime he never committed. Those who were in court on the day Babu was sentenced remember that he told the judge to give him death sentence if he was indeed guilty.
Satyam `died' for nine years during his lifetime. And as far as the case is concerned, a decade later, with hardly any conclusive evidence left, the only verdict possible is `No one killed Ayesha'.