Who is afraid of Sohrabuddin Sheikh?

The gag order on the media barred from reporting on the trial case raises the question of who the court is trying to protect and who is afraid of details emerging in the public domain during the trial

Photo courtesy: YouTube
Photo courtesy: YouTube

Uttam Sengupta

Why is the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case so sensitive and ‘sensational’ that the special CBI court in Mumbai does not want the media to report on the trial? This is the second criminal case in which a gag order has been issued on the media, the first being a criminal case involving incitement to violence against the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. In the latter case it was the Allahabad High Court which passed the gag order while in the Sohrabuddin case, it is the trial court which has now deemed it fit to silence the media.

No such sensitivity was shown by the judiciary in criminal cases involving even prominent politicians like Lalu Prasad Yadav. Could it be the Gujarat election that weighed with the court? Or is it the ‘Loya effect’ after the recent controversy over the mysterious death in 2014 of the then CBI court judge Brijmohan Loya dealing with this case, which has rattled the court ?

What is surprising is that the most prominent accused, BJP’s national president Amit Shah, and a number of other police officers have already been discharged and acquitted by the court. Indeed, as many as 15 of the 38 accused by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) have been discharged from the case so far.

Others, the smaller fry, are however still facing trial for killing Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi in a fake encounter in November, 2005. An accomplice of Sheikh said to be a mercenary involved in an extortion racket, Tulsiram Prajapati, who the CBI said was a witness to Gujarat police taking the couple into custody near Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, was also killed a year later in an encounter. Prajapati had expressed his apprehension that he would be eliminated. He had written to the NHRC as well as to other authorities to save his life but he too was killed in an encounter in 2006.

Some of these police officers were rehabilitated and even promoted by the Gujarat government after their release on bail. Following the acquittal of Amit Shah, the Minister of State for Home in Gujarat in 2005, these police officers also expected to be absolved of all charges. Indeed, one of the encounter specialists, D G Vanzara, was also discharged in August this year. Vanzara had famously written a letter from prison in 2013 in which he threatened to expose the political bosses. The policemen, he wrote, had merely carried out instructions and all the encounters were ‘genuine’.

The CBI, which had arrested Amit Shah in 2010, filed the charge sheet in 2012. It alleged that Sheikh in connivance with some police officers was engaged in an extortion racket and had threatened some businessmen in Ahmedabad. Unofficially it was whispered that Sheikh was used by Gujarat police to eliminate criminals as well as politicians.

The CBI charge sheet established that a team of police officers was sent to Hyderabad to apprehend Sheikh. While they intercepted a bus in which Sheikh was travelling with his wife and Prajapati, Kauser Bi insisted on being taken into custody. While Prajapati was handed over to Rajasthan Police, Sheikh and Kauser Bi were kept in different farmhouses on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.

Witness statements produced by the CBI in court quoted lower level police functionaries as saying that Kauser Bi was raped in the farmhouse by the inspector deployed to detain her there. When she was informed of the death of Sheikh, she turned hysterical and was sedated by a police officer before being killed and her body burnt.

Gujarat Police in 2005 had claimed that Sheikh was a dreaded LeT terrorist who had been sent to assassinate the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. But a SIT comprising Gujarat police officers in 2007 concluded that it was a case of fake encounter and arrested Vanzara and several other police officers. The Supreme Court stepped in to transfer the case to the CBI and shifted the trial out of Gujarat.

CBI had also produced call records to claim that Amit Shah was in direct contact with the team entrusted to stage the encounters.

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