Image courtesy: Times of India
Eight years after the brutal custodial death of 24- year-old Agnelo Valdaris, eight police personnel attached to Wadala Government Railway Police (GRP) station in Mumbai will be charged for murdering him. The ghastly killing, over allegations of an alleged theft, had shocked the conscience of the cosmopolis.
On September 17, the court partly accepted a plea by Leonard Valdaris, the victim’s father, to frame charges of murder against the suspects. Valdaris, a former Mumbai Port Trust employee, sought rejection of the earlier chargesheet saying it was a case of death due to custodial torture. He had based his plea on the HC’s observations in 2019 that it was a prima facie case of custodial death and that Section 302 (murder) be invoked. The policemen went on appeal before the SC.
Hindustan Times and Times of India reported that special POCSO judge Jayshri R Pulate has allowed the plea filed by Agnelo Valdaris’ family for prosecuting the policemen for murder, a charge which was also resisted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) which probed the case. The central agency had maintained that there was no material to support the charge of murder. Despite the reluctance of the investigating agency, the Judge has weighed evidence and ruled for charging the police personnel.
“The material on record in the form of statements of witnesses, postmortem report, copies of station diaries and the memorandum of the scene of the offence, reveals that prima facie it is the case where charge under Section 302 (murder), 295-A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) of the IPC can be framed,” said the court while allowing the plea.
The eight police personnel who would also face the murder charge include Jitendra Rathod, Archana Pujari, Shatrugan Tondse, Tushar Khairnar, Ravindra Mane, Suresh Mane, Vikas Suryawanshi and Satyajit Kamble. According to the prosecution case, Agnelo and three others were allegedly tortured and sexually abused by the Wadala GRP on April 18, 2014. The four men were picked up by the police from their residences on April 15 and April 16, suspecting them to be involved in chain snatching.
The special trial court has set October 21 as the date “for framing of murder charge” against all eight accused police officers, reports Swati Deshpande. The accused have been asked to be present on that day. Wadala GRP personnel had arrested Valdaris and three others including a minor boy on April 15, 2014 on charges of stealing gold jewellery. They were allegedly stripped, tortured and sexually abused. Valdaris died in custody while the others were released on bail.
A special trial court has directed “all the respondents (accused)” in the Agnelo Valdaris custodial death case to “remain present” on October 21 for framing charges under Sections 302 (for murder) and 295 (A) (for acts intended to outrage religious feelings) of the IPC in addition to other “charges levelled against them in the chargesheet”.
Plea by father of Valdaris insisted on murder charge
It all began when they were taken to the GRP station where they were allegedly beaten up and questioned where they had kept a gold chain and a ring suspected to be stolen by them. Agnello allegedly died due to the torture while in police custody and a first information report (FIR) was registered against the personnel concerned, attached to the Wadala GRP.
Little moved till the family stepped in to pursue justice for their tortured and killed son. It was a petition by his father, that led the Bombay high court to transfer the case to CBI, which then filed charge-sheet on December 3, 2016 against the eight police officers, invoking provisions of the Indian Penal Code and also relevant provisions of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act as well. Crucially, however, the charges levelled against them, did not include the charge of murder.
The high court, acting on a separate petition by the father of the victim, later directed CBI to invoke the charge of murder in the case. The order was challenged before the Supreme Court, which directed trial court to decide the issue after hearing all the stakeholders – the victim’s family, the accused and prosecution. The SC in November 2020 directed the trial court to independently “apply its mind” while deciding on the framing of charges and invoking appropriate sections. Valdaris’s counsel Payoshi Roy said the SC had also permitted the father and other victims to file protest petitions which the trial court would have to consider.
A CBI investigation said Agnelo died when he escaped from custody and was run over on the railway tracks. Police were initially charge sheeted only for causing injury, wrongful confinement and criminal conspiracy-all minor offences, according to his father’s plea-and it was only following Bombay high court supervision that the cops were charge sheeted under the Protection Of Children from Sexual Offences Act in 2016.
Proceedings in the POSCO Court
Accordingly, the special POCSO court heard all of them and passed the order, which became available on Wednesday and held that the police personnel were liable to be charged for murder, primarily in view of the material on record like the postmortem report, which showed that the deceased had incised wounds, multiple abrasions and contusions. There was a fracture on ribs on both sides. Injury marks of bluish red colour were caused during the period when the victim was in police custody.
Besides, the trial court also relied on the statements of others apprehended with the victim. “The co-accused i.e. Sufiyan Khan (25), Mohd. Hajam (19) and a minor who are also victims of custodial torture said in their statements that they have witnessed the torture meted out to the deceased. The statement of co-accused shows that they were also sexually abused by the police who are meant to protect society. Therefore, the conduct of police officers from the inception of arrest of deceased and co-accused is suspicious,” said the court.
The court also relied on the statement of medical officer Dr. Ejaz Husin who said that the accused cops pressurised him to mention that the injuries were self- inflicted. Further the court said that the CCTV footage which could have given a clear picture is missing.
Destruction of Evidence
“There is one more aspect which is required to be considered that CCTV footage of Wadala railway police station was not preserved in spite of directions issued by the Hon’ble High Court vide its order dated 16.06.2014. Therefore, it also leads to negative inference against police officers / accused,” the court said.
Counsel for the family
Roy said the HC had in December 2016 observed that statements recorded by CBI disclosed commission of an offence under sections 302 (murder) or 304 Part II (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and 377 (unnatural acts) IPC. In September 2018, CBI then filed a supplementary chargesheet adding section 377 IPC against the police officers but not section 302, IPC.
Valdaris’s plea said the accused must be tried for murder as the autopsy surgeon said “immediate cause of death” was “hemorrhage due to multiple injuries. The post-mortem report reflects that head injuries suffered by the deceased resulted in brain hemorrhage and a subarachnoid hemorrhage, both of which are life threatening and prima facie homicidal.”
The protest plea said, “it is not the case of the prosecution that the train had gone over the deceased’s head. Nor do the head injuries carry any deposition of black greasy material from the train tracks”, The petition cited statements of the father, a doctor who examined him and post-mortem reports and alleged “suppression of CCTV footage at Wadala railway station”.
The detailed order of the court is awaited but the brief order said, “Special Public Prosecutor Abhinav Krishna is present” and all eight accused on bail are “absent”. For the first accused, his lawyer had filed an exemption plea which the court granted. Advocates Abhiman Patil representing four of the other accused and Kumawat for the remaining three were present.