Why the mass acquittal in Sohrabuddin Sheikh case is about grave systemic injustice
It has been 13 years since Sohrabuddin Anwarhussain Sheikh died. He was killed in an “encounter” with the Gujarat police, which is widely believed to be a case of “fake encounter”. He died on November 26, 2005 and since then his brother Rubabuddin has fought for justice. Rubabuddin filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court which led to the probe into the alleged encounter.
It is rumoured that Sohrabuddin was associated with the terrorism group, Lashkar-e-Taiba and with Pakistani intelligence agencies. Another rumour was that because of these associations, he had plans to assassinate an important political leader. Sohrabuddin had been accused of extorting protection money from marble factories in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The Gujarat Police allegedly also found 40 AK-47 rifles from his residence in Madhya Pradesh. There were at least 60 cases pending against him for murder, extortion and smuggling weapons when he was killed.
Sohrabuddin had been on the run when the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) of the Gujarat state police caught him travelling in a public bus to Sangli, Maharashtra. He was with his wife, Kauser Bi and his friend Tulsiram Prajapati. All three of them were taken away by the police to a farmhouse at the outskirts of Ahmedabad city. Sohrabuddin was killed four days later in an encounter, as the police claims. As the Gujarat police still apparently believes, Sohrabuddin “wanted to assassinate Narendra Modi”, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat and now India’s Prime Minister, no hard evidence was presented to substantiate the claim.
Kauser Bi was not seen after the encounter till November 29. The CBI says that she was taken to some other place, raped and then killed. New evidence has recently come to light which shows that she may have been raped by members of the Gujarat Police. A year later, Tulsiram was killed on December 27, 2006 in another encounter by the Gujarat and Rajasthan police. He was the only witness to Sohrabuddin’s killing other than the police involved. The police said that he was attempting to flee and that is why he had to be shot dead.
Right from the beginning, the Sohrabuddin trial was marked by macabre happenings of extraordinary nature which have rattled the highest court of the country. When the trial began, many powerful people were named in the case including Amit Shah, then the home minister of Gujarat and a very close associate of Narendra Modi. The other accused included IPS officer Abhay Chudasama, former Rajasthan Home Minister Gulabchand Kataria, former Gujarat police chief P C Pande, D G Vanzara and senior police officer Geeta Johri. But soon enough all of them were discharged. Finally, in September 2012, the case was transferred from Gujarat CID (Criminal Investigation Department) to CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) at Mumbai by the Supreme Court.
Sohrabuddin has two more brothers other than Rubabuddin: Nayamuddin Shaikh and Shahnawazuddin Shaikh who were also included as prosecution witnesses. Rubabuddin claimed that many material witnesses were not called as witnesses like Gujarat investigator Rajnish Rai, Gujarat builders Ramanbhai and Dashrathbhai Patel. Totally 38 people were originally accused in the case, while 16 of them got discharged in 2014.
One of the most sinister points in the trial was in 2014 when the case was entrusted to Judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya. At that time, Amit Shah was still one of the accused. Soon after the transfer of the case to Judge Loya, he died under extremely mysterious circumstances on November 30, 2014. This led to the case being shifted to two more times and finally the third judge to hear the case, Judge M B Gosavi, dropped the charges against Amit Shah on December 30, 2014.
The echoes of Judge Loya’s mysterious death continue to sound in the Supreme Court’s corridors till date, creating unprecedented factions among the Justices. Another strange occurrence was in November 2017 when the CBI Court issued a gag order against media reporting on this trial. It was later set aside by Justice Revati Mohite-Dere of the Bombay High Court.
It took 12 years for the deposition of witnesses to be conducted in the case. On top of that out of the 210 witnesses deposed, 92 turned hostile and nobody till date has questioned why or how that happened. The Special CBI court left it at that and said that since there was not enough evidence, the accused could not be held guilty for the deaths of Sohrabuddin, Kauser Bi and Tulsiram Prajapati. The special CBI Judge S J Sharma has, in the judgment and order dated December 21, acquitted all the 22 accused. He also said that he felt sorry for the families of the three who died in the encounters but could not help it because the system demands that the court follow the evidence. His exact words were: “The prosecution has failed to put forth any documentary or substantive evidence to suggest or establish the conspiracy theory against the 22 accused. It has failed to establish all charges levelled against them. Hence all the accused stand acquitted.”
This verdict shows how flawed our judicial system really is. The CBI and the Special CBI Judge were convinced that it was a fake encounter yet could not do anything about it, they were “helpless” before the system. This just reflects how the judiciary entirely failed the three victims. Bias in the final verdict was perhaps expected since senior political leaders and police officers were involved. However, this extreme kind of blindness is shocking, where the court did not find anything amiss even as most of the key witnesses turned hostile, and even the bus driver and a passenger in the same bus could not stand up for the three people killed after they were taken off that very bus.
In any case, the circumstances of Sohrabuddin’s killing are stark — it cannot be a coincidence that Tulsiram, a key witness was also killed later in another alleged encounter. The circumstances of the death of Sohrabuddin’s wife are also unclear even after all these years. It is likely that she was brutally raped by the policemen and then killed to be cremated at a spot nearby.
December 21, 2018 was certainly a sad day for Rubabuddin. It has been a long journey for him, yet he has not got any justice for his brother. He now plans to challenge the decision and appeal to the Supreme Court. At a systemic level, there are grave questions of impunity of police in fake encounters, especially at the behest of the politically powerful, apart from the safety of witnesses in political crimes.
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