Even as the state Director General of Police (DGP) Dr PS Pasricha was about to announce the arrest of the main perpetrator of the Malegaon serial blasts of September 8 at the state police headquarters in Colaba, half a mile away in the designated POTA court, the Mumbai crime branch suffered a major set back in the trial of the Ghatkopar BEST bus blast case when the key witness and complainant turned hostile.
Dilip Wankhade, the conductor of the ill-fated BEST bus that was rocked by a powerful explosion near LBS Marg in the evening of July 28, 2003, told judge SS Joshi that he had not seen anybody nor did he suspect any one of having planted the bomb in the bus.
Three persons were killed while 58 more were injured in the bomb which forensic experts had later established was a cocktail of Ammonium Nitrate and RDX.
Earlier in October 2003, Wankhade had identified Ashrat Ansari and Fahimida, two of the five accused in the case during an identification parade which was conducted in the prison.
It was held before a magistrate. Wankhade had earlier told the police that on the fateful day, the duo had got into the bus as a couple near the Andheri station and booked their tickets upto the Ghatkopar railway station, which was the last stop. However, they got down at Asalpha, near Sakinaka.
The bomb went off near the Ghatkopar telephone exchange, about a kilometer from the Ghatkopar station. Wankhade, who was badly injured in the blast which left him near deaf, said he remembered Ashrat's face clearly since the latter fought with him for chutta (change).
After Wankhade's turn around in the court on Monday, Special Public Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam quickly declared him 'hostile' and told the court that his statement no more held any ground.
Nikam later told reporters that the prosecution might initiate perjury proceedings against Wankhade and termed him as a "Black Sheep" in the BEST.
Nevertheless, with Wankhade turning hostile, the prosecution's case has lost its ground, maintained defence lawyer Suresh Kunjuraman. "It clearly proves that the entire prosecution's case was cooked up," Kunjuraman stated.
However, chief investigator of the case, Assistant Commissioner of Police (now retired) Suresh Walishetty told HT that the prosecution had enough evidence to prove the case against the accused. "Wankhade's hostility will cease to have any effect on the prospects of the case. We have enough material evidence as well as deposition of several other eyewitnesses to drive home our case," Walishetty maintained.
He said the police had got enough indication in the past about Wankhade's conduct in the case. On June 28, 2004, Wankhade had written a letter to the then general manager of BEST, Swadhin Kshatriya alleging that the police were coercing him to identify Fahimida and Ashrat as the planters of the bomb.
The three other accused in the case are Hanif Sheikh, the mastermind of the August 25, 2003 Zaveri Bazar-Gateway twin bomb blast case, Hassan Batterywalla and Rizwan Ladduwalla. The five are also accused in three more blasts that rocked the city in 2003.