Disha encounter case: More details of probe lapses surface in part 2 of hearing

In the second schedule, too, the SC-appointed Commission majorly cross-examined J Surender Reddy, the investigating officer of the encounter killing case.
Images from the location of encounter killings of accused in the Disha rape and murder case
Images from the location of encounter killings of accused in the Disha rape and murder case
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The agenda was set for the second schedule of the hearing in the alleged encounter killing of the four accused in the gang-rape and murder of a 26-year-old veterinary doctor in Hyderabad in 2019. A Supreme Court-appointed three-member Commission is investigating the circumstances that led the police to gun down the four accused. The Commission picked up the second schedule from where they unsatisfactorily concluded the first schedule — cross-examining the third witness, J Surender Reddy, the investigating officer (IO) of the encounter killing case. 

Surender Reddy had hedged several questions during the first schedule of the hearing, stating he had to refer to records as he could not recollect certain details. Read details of the first schedule in August 2021 here. In the second hearing, too, the Investigating Officer’s responses to the Commission still seemed amorphous and inconclusive, which shed light on more lapses in the investigation. 

The second schedule of the encounter killing case hearing began on September 1 and went on for three days. Apart from the IO, the second schedule also cross-examined the father of one of the accused, Mohammed Arif alias Ahmed. TNM collected inside details of what happened at the Commission’s second schedule of the hearing.  

Day 1: Investigating officer

As soon as the second schedule began, K Parmeshwar, the counsel for the Commission, said it would first take up some of the questions investigating officer Surender Reddy had not answered earlier. The Commission was surprised when Surender Reddy said he did not maintain crucial details such as call data records and the second statement of witnesses in the case diary. The commission enquired if the officer did not consider these details to be an important part of the investigation. 

“The commission seemed annoyed with the officer as they were being forced to ask the same questions several times. The commission also told the officer that he is a mature police officer and this shouldn’t be happening. Despite that, the officer was taking a lot of time to answer the questions posed to him. The Commission also noted that the officer’s counsel seemed to be nodding at times and seemed to be suggesting or prompting Surender Reddy,” revealed a source who attended the hearing where the officer’s vague answers revealed some lapses in the investigation. 

Lapse in inquest procedure

The investigation protocol requires the panch witnesses to be present during the inquest proceedings. Panch witnesses are those who have seen a certain incident happen at the crime spot. As part of the inquest proceedings, they need to report things as seen at the scene at a particular time before the investigation commences. In this case, the panch witnesses were government employees.

The Commission observed that these witnesses were not physically present at the time of the inquest proceedings, both at the crime scene and the hospital where the bodies of the four accused were taken. Instead, the police made some WhatsApp calls to the witnesses after the bodies were brought to the hospitals. When asked details about the numbers of the panch witnesses to whom WhatsApp calls were made, the investigating officer said he didn’t have any details.

Lapse in police firing warning shot

The IO had told the Commission’s counsel earlier that the police had fired only one shot in the air as a warning shot. However, during the course of questioning, some interesting details came to light. It was revealed that one of the Special Operations Team (SOT) Officers, Lal Madhar, had fired the warning shot. However, members of SOT are trained specifically to handle organised crimes and not meant for offences that come under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), such as the Disha gang-rape and murder case. The Commission had raised the question of officers from the SOT accompanying the team when it examined the Telangana Home Secretary in the first schedule.

When asked about the weapon used to fire the warning shot, the investigating officer said an AK-47 was used. The counsel then asked whether a single shot could be fired from an AK-47, to which the IO replied, “No.” It was revealed that an AK-47 could fire a minimum of 10 rounds in one go.

The counsel enquired if Shadnagar Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) V Surender, the investigating officer of the Disha rape case who headed the police team to the crime spot, gave any specific instructions that led to the police firing. He said that the ACP directed them to “fire in the air in order to apprehend the fleeing accused.”

According to a source, the commission didn’t seem convinced. When the commission asked how the IO concluded this, the IO said it was mentioned in Surender’s statement. Interestingly, the IO’s final report had not mentioned this particular sentence by the ACP, but only said that V Surender ordered everyone to “open fire without a direct aim.” The Commission noted this contradiction.

Bullet entry wounds

During the examination, the IO mentioned that there were no bullet injuries on the backside of the four men who were shot dead and that all the bullets had gone through the body. No bullets were either retrieved from the spot, he added on further questioning. 

When the IO couldn’t conclude which weapon was used to fire at the accused, the counsel asked why a long-range weapon was used. The IO stated that then Cyberabad Commissioner VC Sajjanar had ordered to issue long-range weapons, and said it was not an unusual practice to carry long-range weapons.

In the examination, it was also revealed that the IO had not examined the register of arms and ammunition at the Shadnagar police station (under the jurisdiction of which the rape took place). The counsel also brought to the notice of the Commission that the IO wasn’t sure why the accused in the rape were not handcuffed by the police during the crime scene recreation. The counsel also questioned whether the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) guidelines (arrest, after an encounter, etc) were followed, to which the IO responded he was not sure which guidelines were being referred to in particular, and that he would have to check his records.

Lapse in magisterial inquiry

Both the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) and the NHRC guidelines mandate that only a judicial magistrate can conduct an inquiry after an encounter killing, and that an executive magistrate is not allowed to do so. However, in the Disha encounter case, an executive magistrate conducted the inquest proceedings. When asked, the IO said he was well aware that a judicial inquiry was to be conducted in the matter.

The IO was then asked at what time the FIR was sent to the judicial magistrate. The police records mentioned that the records were sent to the judicial magistrate around 9:30 am on December 6, 2019, the day of the encounter killing. However, it was revealed that the judicial magistrate had received the same only at 4:40 pm that day. The Commission took note of this discrepancy.

The IO was also asked if he felt it was necessary to preserve the scene of the crime and the bodies for the judicial inquiry, he said he did think it was necessary but couldn’t ensure the same because of the thronging crowd at the spot. The IO said that it was due to the large crowds that he let the executive magistrate conduct the inquest proceedings. It was also revealed that the judicial magistrate was informed much later after the bodies were taken away from the scene of the crime. The IO also mentioned that the judicial magistrate did not visit the scene of the crime.

For several questions regarding lapses, the IO attributed it to the crowd. He told the Commission that there was a crowd of 40,000 people who had gathered at the location of the crime. When videos and photos from the location of the crime and the crowds that had gathered were played, the Commission noted that the IO’s excuse of large crowds was not really founded. The Commission noted that there hardly seemed around 1,000 people at the site. It also noted that it seemed like adequate police personnel were deployed at the location and that the crowd seemed manageable.

Arrests not in records

When asked for details about where the accused were picked up from and the exact place of arrest, the IO stated that the records didn’t mention these details. He also mentioned that the arrest panchnama (report) was not recorded at the time of the arrest. He only mentioned that the investigating officer before V Surender was the one who had arrested them. The Commission also had asked whether the accused or their families were informed about the reason for the arrest, as mandated by the NHRC guidelines. When the age of the accused was discussed, the IO stated that they were not minors, although it wasn’t found in any of the statements recorded in the case.

The counsel for the Commission completed the examination of the IO on day 1 of the second schedule. On the following day, the other counsels examined the IO. 

Day 3: Father of one accused

On day 3, Pinjari Hussain, the father of one of the accused, Mohammed Arif alias Ahmed, was called for examination. Uma Maheshwar Rao, the counsel for the police department, examined Hussain. According to sources who witnessed the proceedings, the police counsel grilled the father. Despite a translator, Hussain, who does not have an education, struggled to understand many of the complex questions. 

One particular question asked by the counsel was if Hussian had complained against the police hoping for compensation. An emotional Hussain replied, “My son died. Will you kill us also? Will you then give compensation? We need justice.”      

Speaking to TNM, Padmaja Shaw, a professor from Osmania University, who witnessed the father of the accused being cross-examined, said, “The human angle was missing when Hussain was being examined. A man who lost his son was being grilled using complex, sometimes legal words. The Commission, too, took note of this and asked the counsel to simplify sentences for Hussain. He is a poor, uneducated man who was pulled into this for no fault of his. The man was asked if the affidavit he filed was politically motivated, who was behind the affidavit, or if he filed the complaint to claim compensation. This was the line of questioning.”

Hussain was also questioned whether the police were in uniform when they came to arrest his son. The police counsel highlighted to the Commission that Hussain’s affidavit and his statements were not the same.     

Speaking to TNM, PV Krishnamachary, the independent counsel for the families of the victims of the encounter, said Hussain was the first person to use the term fake encounter. “So far, the state witnesses were being examined and no one used the term fake encounter. Hussain is the first to do so. A question about whether Hussain had filed the complaint only for compensation was not allowed by the Commission. The Commission’s motive is to find whether the encounter was fake or real, and is concentrating on all the incidents that occurred on the day of the crime.”

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