The horrifying incident of the custodial death of a father and son due to torture in custody, is still fresh in people’s minds. In June, Jeyaraj (60) and Benicks (31) two shopowners in Sathankulam were taken in custody and were brutally assaulted by police personnel which eventually led to their death within 4 days. A Magistrate level inquiry was commissioned and Judicial Magistrate No. 1, Kovilpatti, Mr. MS Bharathidhasan carried out a thorough inquiry into the case from June 23 to July 31 and submitted the report on August 13.
The accused in the case include then Station House Officer S Sridhar, sub-inspectors K Balakrishnan, and P Raghuganesh, then head constables S Murugan and A Samadurai, and then constables M Muthuraja, S Chelladurai, X Thomas Francis and S Veilumuthu. Another accused was Assistant Inspector Pauldurai who has since died of Covid-19.
Although the case was transferred to the CBI and a chargesheet has been filed, this initial report filed by the Magistrate under section 176 1A(a) of the Code of Criminal Procedure is a glimpse into the case and an example of a well-executed inquiry into the case without losing evidentiary value. It is such meticulous inquiry reports that help the prosecution establish the case during trial.
How the inquiry was carried out
The Magistrate visited the jail where the incident had taken place and recorded statement of the co-prisoner of the deceased, Benicks, citing that it would become difficult to record the same if he were to be released on bail. Evidentiary material was also carefully collected from the prison cell where the incident took place, including samples of blood stains and other such forensic related material.
Further, for inquest or post mortem of the dead body of the deceased, the Magistrate heard out the family members, pacified them and explained the legal procedures to them when they finally agreed to cooperate with the inquest and 3 family members agreed to be present during inquest. The Magistrate made sure no police officer was present in the inquest hall during the inquest. A list of injuries was also made by the Magistrate. A detailed post mortem was later carried out by doctors and the whole process was video-graphed.
When the Magistrate visited the police station to acquire CCTV footage and copies of register entries, it was found that despite having sufficient storage of 1TB, the settings were configured to auto delete recordings on a daily basis and hence no video recordings of the date of the incident were found. The hard disk was impounded to retrieve the deleted recordings by computer forensic experts. The Magistrate also ensured that a new hard disk was placed to continue undisturbed recordings, and also gave written instructions to the Inspector to not change settings to auto-delete mode.
While recording statements of one of the woman constables, the other constables were seen lingering around and the witness was scared to depose before the Magistrate. The court staff that was standing on guard were also bullied by the other policemen. When the Magistrate asked all constables to produce their lathis for collecting evidence, they refused and only produced them after being warned of legal consequences. One of the constables even ran away when asked for his lathi.
Further, many constables were video recording the inquiry process despite being warned of contempt of court and they continued to threaten and bully the court staff.
The Magistrate also visited the government hospital where the two deceased were taken after they sustained injuries while in custody. The CCTV footage of the hospital was also taken in as evidence while also acquiring certificate 65B of Indian Evidence Act (relating to admissibility of evidence in electronic form) so that the same is duly considered during trial and not dismissed due to want of technicalities. The statement of one of the witnesses, a sweeper, was videographed as he is verbally and hearing impaired and his statement was interpreted by his wife.
Findings of the inquiry
The statements of witnesses revealed that both deceased had surrendered to police arrest without causing obstruction or using abusive words towards the police, as claimed by the police in the FIR. The report states that it is important to discuss the genuineness of accusation in the FIR, in order to ascertain if their custody was legal in the first place and to discover the case of death and the circumstances leading to it.
The Magistrate has stated that the police made out a false case against the deceased with an ill-will of burying their sin of police brutality under guise of judicial remand, as Jeyaraj was arrested around 7.30 PM, allegedly for keeping shop open after government mandated hours. But it was found that norms allowed shops to remain open till 9 PM. Witnesses, including constables and chance witnesses testified detailing the manner in which the deceased were assaulted in custody.
The report states that with witness statements it can be concluded that the father were made to undress and were brutally attacked through the night. “All this inhumane violence upon the father and son who were surviving their life with a petty mobile shop without a single criminal history could have been prevented and lives of two common men would be saved if a single phone call was made to the appropriate authorities by the SB-CID police Mr. Santhanakumar who is specially deputed from SP office and who is duty bound to report SP office about every unusual incidents within the station jurisdiction prior to the law and order police of a station,. He is further legally bound to send daily occurrence report to the SP office,” states the report. As per witness account, the SB-CID was present during the incident and gave no intimation to SP office thus resulting in dereliction of duty. He practically abetted the crime but he was merely transferred to another police station.
The report has also mentioned that several incidents of custodial torture have been reported in the same police station. Further, after the deceased were taken to hospital, they were taken to Magistrate court for securing remand. The report states that though there was specific mention of injuries in remand requisition form and in medical proforma, the same found no mention in the warrant for remand and no intimation of arrest was given to the relatives either. The father and son were then taken to Sub-Jail Kovilpatti. The inquiry report notes that despite noting down injuries in the admission register of the jail, the jail Superintendent did not take any steps for 2 days to provide medical treatment and on third day when both were admitted to hospital, they were eventually declared dead.
After taking into account the post mortem opinion and of statements of witnesses, the Magistrate, through the inquiry held that Benicks died due to injuries inflicted by police on June 19 at Sathankulam Police Station.
The chargesheet that was submitted in September concurred with every finding of the inquiry report.
The Magisterial Inquiry report for Benicks may be read here
The chargesheet may be read here