Custodial deaths: Prima facie, sufficient material for murder case against police officers, says Madras HC

It made the observation in backdrop of a report by Judicial Magistrate conducting the probe into the custodial deaths that the Santhakulam police officers had been acting to obstruct the probe

Madras High Court
Madras High Court
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NH Web Desk

The Madras High Court on Tuesday commented that prima facie, it appeared that there was sufficient material to make out a case for murder against the police officers of the Sathankulam Police Station, Thoothukudi, stated to have been involved in the custodial deaths of Jayaraj and his son Bennix, legal news website BarandBench.com has reported.

Justice PN Prakash and B Pugalendhi made the observation in the backdrop of a report by the Judicial Magistrate conducting the probe into the custodial deaths that the Santhakulam police officers had been acting to obstruct the probe. Contempt proceedings against three police officers have been initiated by the court yesterday.

The judicial magistrate had also informed the court that Head Constable Revathy had come forward to spill the beans.

In his June 29 report, the Magistrate had also informed the court that the Head Constable had been afraid to speak about the case, and that she was initially reluctant to sign her statement.

As per this report, Revathy is also stated to have deposed that Jayaraj and Bennix were beaten until dawn and that there is bound to be blood marks in the lathis used by the police. The Magistrate's report further detailed that the other police officers were either indifferent or had attempted to intimidate the Magistrate when queries were made, including on where their lathis were.

The court proceeded to opine that, "... the ante-mortem injuries found on the bodies of the deceased, coupled with the averments in the report of the learned Judicial Magistrate No.1, Kovilpatti, especially the statement of Revathy, Head Constable, would be prima facie enough to alter the case to one under Section 302 IPC against the Sathankulam policemen who were actively involved in the investigation of the case in Cr.No.312 of 2020."

In the interests of justice, the court has now directed that the Head Constable's statement be recorded by a Judicial Magistrate other than the Sathankulam Magistrate or the Magistrate conducting the probe.

The court has also ordered the Thoothukudi Collector to ensure the safety of the Head Constable and her family.

Directions to ensure evidence is not destroyed before CBI takes charge

Following the Madras High Court's formal nod for the same, the Tamil Nadu Government on Monday transferred the probe into the custodial deaths to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

However, given that the CBI is yet to take the case on its file and since the agency does not have a regional office in Tuticorin or Tirunelveli to commence the investigation, it was noted that the CBI investigation may not commence immediately.

The Judicial Magistrate conducting the probe under Section 176 CrPC also informed the court that the Sathankulam police are taking advantage of the investigation being in limbo and "attempting to cause disappearance of evidence."

The court has, therefore, directed Anil Kumar, presently the Deputy Superintendent of Police, CB-CID, Tirunelveli, who was previously in the Special Branch, CID, to take over as the investigating officer for now, without waiting for any formal order from the DGP.

The court has directed the handover of all relevant case files, the original statement given by Head Constable Revathy and the preliminary post-mortem reports. The court has also directed the concerned Magistrate to hand over the original enquiry report in a sealed cover once it is prepared.

Public indignation not a barometer for judicial orders

Before parting with the order, the Bench also responded to possible public outcry over why the court "took this long" the making observations regarding the possible culpability of the police officers.

"Public indignation cannot be the barometer for judicial orders. Public memory is short, but, judicial orders, especially those of the High Court, which is a court of record, live forever,"the court said.

It added, "Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor committed the blunder of condemning Jesus Christ to death based on public outcry in a sham trial that was held before dawn and thereafter, washed his hands off with water. We cannot afford to emulate him. Hitherto, in the absence of credible materials, we were handicapped and now that, we have at hand some prima facie incriminatory materials, we decided to fill the gap via our above observations."

The matter will be taken up next on July 2.

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