In Mumbai, a bomb scare, a murder mystery, and terror angle: What we know so far

Assistant police inspector Sachin Vaze has been remanded to custody till March 25, after the NIA arrested him late Saturday night for his purported role in planting explosives in an SUV found parked outside billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s house on February 25
Police personnel guard Antilia, the residence of industrialist Mukesh Ambani. (HT file)
Police personnel guard Antilia, the residence of industrialist Mukesh Ambani. (HT file)
Updated on Mar 16, 2021 06:57 AM IST
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ByManish Pathak & Charul Shah

In a series of fast-paced developments over the weekend, the special National Investigation Authority (NIA) court at Kala Ghoda, Mumbai on Sunday remanded assistant police inspector Sachin Vaze to custody till March 25, after the central agency arrested him late Saturday night for his purported role in planting explosives in a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) found parked outside billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s house on February 25. On Monday, Vaze was placed under suspension.

He was arrested under Sections 286 (negligent conduct with respect to explosive substance), 465 (punishment for forgery), 473 (making or possessing counterfeit seal), 506(2) (criminal intimidation, if threat be to cause death or grievous hurt), 120(B) (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code and section 4(a)(b) (1) (punishment for attempt to cause explosion, or for making or keeping explosive with intent to endanger life or property) of the Indian Explosives Act, 1908.

According to a top NIA official who did not wish to be named, Vaze, who had been questioned for over 12 hours on Saturday, confessed to being part of a group that placed 20 loose gelatin sticks (unassembled, without a detonator or a timer) in a green-coloured Scorpio that was found parked outside Ambani’s residence, Antilia.

“Sachin Vaze is part of the group that planted the explosive-laden Scorpio on Carmichael Road (near Antilia) on February 25. He has confessed to it,” the official said.

Vaze has reportedly moved the Bombay high court challenging the grounds of his arrest, and the special NIA court will take up the matter further after the prosecution refused to give Vaze a copy of his remand application citing privilege and confidentiality.

Vaze is also under investigation for his role in the suspicious death of 48-year-old Mansukh Hiran, a Thane-based auto spare parts businessman, who was linked to the Scorpio found parked outside the Ambani residence in South Mumbai. The case is being probed by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS).

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Vaze was in the news all of last week — he was accused by Hiran’s wife Vimla of being involved in her husband’s death; leader of Opposition Devendra Fadnavis sought his arrest based on Vimla’s statement, causing a political storm during the last two days of the Assembly session; state home minister Anil Deshmukh announced that Vaze will be removed as the head of the Crime Intelligence Unit (CIU) of the Mumbai Crime Branch till the investigation in this case was complete; he was interrogated by both the NIA and the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), which are probing related aspects of this case; and on Saturday, as he was being questioned by NIA officials, a Thane district and session court refused to grant him interim protection in his anticipatory bail plea in the murder case, stating that his “custodial interrogation was necessary”.

The case continues to be a political flashpoint between the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Speaking to reporters from Pune on Sunday, Fadnavis said that the arrest indicated that other names will soon come out, and put a question mark on how the probe was carried out earlier. “This isn’t a small plot. It is a major plot. There are many people involved in this. All those who are involved and the reasons for doing this will come out now,” he said. BJP leader Kirit Somaiya told news agency ANI that Vaze has more than six businesses and Shiv Sena leaders Sanjay Mashelkar and Vijay Gawai were his business partners.

Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut on Sunday came out in support of Vaze. “I believe Sachin Vaze is a very honest and capable officer. He has been arrested in connection with gelatin sticks that were found. One suspicious death also occurred. It’s Mumbai Police’s responsibility to investigate the matter. No central team was needed,” Raut told news agency ANI.

On Saturday, the 49-year-old cop, who had recently been shunted to the Citizens Facilitation Centre, updated the status on messaging application, Whatsapp. It ended with the lines: “I think the time to say goodbye to the world is coming closer.”

Here’s what we know of Vaze’s role — and the investigation into this case — so far:

A car outside Antilia

On February 25, when Bharat Patil, a security officer at Antilia placed a call to the Mumbai police control room and the Gamdevi police station regarding a suspicious SUV parked opposite the multi-storeyed house where the Ambanis reside, Vaze, the head of the CIU, was one of the many officers who arrived at the scene.

A Bomb Detection and Disposal Squad (BDDS) officer present there that day said on the condition of anonymity that the 2.5 kg gelatin was enough to trigger a low intensity blast, but that the gelatin sticks found in the SUV were not in the form of an assembled explosive device. The mark of a Nagpur-based company found on the gelatin sticks indicated that the explosive was procured from Nagpur where it is commonly sold for mining purposes.

The same day, the Gamdevi police registered an offence in connection with the incidence against unknown persons under sections 286, 465, 473, 506(2), 120 B of IPC, and 4(a)(b)(I)Explosive Substances Act 1908.

On February 26, Vaze was made lead investigator in the case and CCTV footage collected from a department store across the road from Antilia revealed that the Scorpio car had arrived the previous night accompanied by an Innova and the driver had left in the latter after sitting in the car for a few hours. The driver was not visible in the footage. The Innova was later found at the Mulund toll point but the night hours made it impossible to make out who was in the car. The case was, however, later transferred to a higher ranking officer of the ATS after the Opposition began to demand that the NIA be called in to investigate.

Though its chassis number was wiped clean, and the registration number on the Scorpio was fake, the cops were able to link the car to Hiran within hours, primarily because the Thane-based businessman had reported it stolen on February 18.

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It turned out that Hiran had been using the car for the past three years, but it did not belong to him. It had been given to him by a certain Peter Newton in lieu of a payment that he had defaulted on. On February 17, Hiran had parked the car on the side of the road after the steering wheel got jammed while he was driving it. The next day, he visited the spot with a mechanic, but found the car missing. Hiran visited the CIU on February 26, and later spoke to the media gathered outside. He admitted that the car was indeed his, but it had not been in his possession for over a week.

Between February 26 and March 4, Hiran was questioned by several policemen from various teams. Then, on March 5, his body washed up ashore at the Retibunder creek in Mumbra, in Thane district. All his belongings were missing, and his face was found covered with a scarf, with handkerchiefs stuck into his mouth.

Last week, the Union home ministry directed the NIA to take over the investigation into the explosives from the ATS; the FIR filed in the Gamdevi police station was re-registered and on March 9, an NIA team landed in Mumbai and began its investigations. It visited the creek where Hiran’s body was found. It also went to Carmichael Road, examined the Scorpio that had been towed to the Yellow Gate police station premises, and sifted through existing evidence. It also met the various police officers who were part of the initial investigation, including Vaze, assistant commissioner of police Nitin Alaknure and ACP Sripad Kale. On March 13, the three were questioned for several hours, and but only Alaknure and Kale were allowed to leave by 9.30pm.

The NIA on Sunday also seized a white Innova car used by officers of the CIU headed by Vaze. Officials claimed that the car was the same Innova which had tailed the Scorpio on the intervening night of February 24 and 25, when the SUV was parked on Carmichael Road across Ambani’s residence. The Innova, bearing registration number with MH01- ZA- 403, was picked up from the motor transport department in Nagapada, an official said. The NIA visited the department late Saturday night/early Sunday morning, and brought the Innova to its office in South Mumbai around 3am on March 14. It is currently parked in the MTNL building where the NIA office is situated. The Scorpio was towed to the Gamdevi police station and later, parked at the Yellow Gate police station, shortly after it was discovered outside Ambani’s residence on February 25.

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A statement that set the ball rolling

Two days after his death, Hiran’s wife Vimla recorded her statement with the ATS, which was now also tasked with investigating the murder. Her statement spoke at great length of Vaze’s connection to Hiran, and the Scorpio.

In her statement, Vimla told the investigators that Hiran, who knew Vaze well, lent him the Scorpio [that was found parked outside Antilia] in November 2020. Vaze’s driver dropped off the car at Hiran’s shop in Thane, on February 5, 2021. The car, she stated, had been in possession of Vaze for four months.

Vimla’s statement also revealed that Vaze had advised Hiran, a day after the businessman had written a letter to the authorities that he was being harassed by cops and a reporter, to get arrested. Vaze told Hiran on March 3 that he would be out on bail within a few days, Vimla’s statement read. Based on this, Hiran even approached his brother Vinod to seek legal advice, and was told that he would not receive anticipatory bail at this stage in the case.

On March 4, Vimla said that her husband returned from his shop at 8.30pm and told her that he was going to meet a police officer named Tawade, somewhere along Ghodbunder Road. Vimala told the investigating team that when she tried calling her husband at 11pm, his mobile phone was switched off. Later at night, when Hiran had still not returned home, Vinod called Vaze who reportedly expressed surprise at the meeting and informed Vinod that Hiran had not mentioned that he was going to meet Tawde.

The following morning, Hiran’s son Meet, and Vinod lodged a missing person’s report at Naupada police station. Hiran’s body was found by fishermen on March 5 around 10.30am. The Mumbra Police handed over the body to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Hospital in Kalwa and filed an Accidental Death report. Prima facie, the police said, it seemed that Hiran had died by suicide. But Vimla contested that claim. In her statement, she told the ATS team that Hiran was too good a swimmer to have drowned.

“Taking into consideration all the above circumstances, I am sure that my husband was murdered,” the last few lines of Vimla’s statement read. “I suspect Sachin Vaze could have committed the said murder.”

Based on her statement, the ATS began to treat Hiran’s death not as a case of suicide or accidental drowning. The agency filed a First Information Report against unknown persons under sections 302 (punishment for murder), 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence or giving false information to screen offender) 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code.

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The ATS team questioned Vaze for several hours. On Friday, March 12, Vaze filed an anticipatory bail plea, which came up for hearing on Saturday. Public Prosecutor Vivek Kadu representing the ATS opposed the plea and said there was prima facie evidence linking him to both, Hiran and the car.

Vaze’s lawyer KM Kalekar, in turn, argued that Vaze had been extensively interrogated by the ATS, including top officials, and had joined the investigation himself to allay any apprehension.

In his application, Vaze stated that he was in Dongri, South Mumbai, at the time of Hiran’s disappearance on the night of March 4, when the businessman left his home and didn’t return. Thus, there was no reason to suspect him of committing murder of the deceased.

But the Thane District and Sessions Court rejected interim protection and posted the anticipatory bail hearing to March 19.

“This court is not agreed to grant interim bail because there is prima facie evidence and material against the applicant, the say of the ATS IO [Anti Terrorism Squad Investigating Officer] is necessary and custodial interrogation of applicant is necessary,” the court said.

Vaze, the officer

Vaze, who has been placed under suspension for the second time in his career, joined the Maharashtra police force in 1990 as a sub inspector. His first posting was in Gadchiroli, a Naxal-affected area and he was moved to Thane city police in 1992. It was here that he gained a reputation of being a good criminal investigator. He was later inducted in the Special Squad of Thane crime branch.

In 2000, Vaze was transferred to the Powai unit of the Mumbai crime branch. It was during his stint here when, together with three other policemen, he faced a charge of murdering Khawaja Yunus, an accused in the December 2, 2002, Ghatkopar blast case when a bomb placed under the seat of a BEST bus parked outside Ghatkopar railway station went off, killing two persons and injuring several others.

Yunus, an engineer, was arrested by the Mumbai crime branch, and later reportedly died in police custody. The state Crime Investigation Department (CID) charged Vaze and three other police personnel — Rajendra Tiwari, Rajaram Nikam and Sunil Desai —with murder and destruction of evidence on March 3, 2004. Following this, Vaze was placed under suspension.

He eventually resigned from service on November 30, 2007. The following year, he joined the Shiv Sena.

The assistant police inspector was eventually reinstated in the police force on June 6, 2020. So were the three other policemen who were booked for their alleged involvement in Yunus’s custodial death. A dispute over the framing of charges in this case is pending before the Bombay high court.

On Saturday, Vaze’s Whatsapp status made a reference to this case, when he wrote: “3rd March 2004. Fellow officers from the CID arrested me in a false case. That arrest inconclusive till date. Sensing the history is going to repeat. My fellow officers are on to falsely trap me.”

At the CIU, Vaze handled a few high-profile cases, including the television rating point (TRP) manipulation case in which 15 persons, including Partho Dasgupta, former chief executive officer of the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), were arrested. The case pertained to Republic TV, owned by ARG Outlier Media, which had allegedly benefited from purported manipulations of TRPs. The CIU filed a voluminous charge sheet against Vikas Khanchandani, CEO of Republic TV, Dasgupta and Romil Ramgarhia, former CCO of BARC, earlier this year in January.

Vaze was also part of the police team that arrested Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami in November 2020, in connection with designer Anvay Naik’s suicide. The police said that Naik and his mother Kumud Naik were found dead in May 2018. According to a suicide note, Naik alleged that he and his mother were forced to end their lives because he was not paid his dues amounting to 5.40 crore by Goswami and two others.

Recent news reports indicated that Vaze had used the Scorpio while he was part of the team that arrested Goswami. However, the reports are as yet uncorroborated.

Meanwhile, in an editorial in its mouthpiece Saamana, Maharashtra’s ruling Shiv Sena on Thursday questioned whether BJP was targeting Vaze for reopening an abetment to suicide case against Goswami and probing the Republic TV editor-in-chief’s alleged role in the Television Rating Point (TRP) scam.

A Tihar jail angle

On Saturday, a Delhi Police special team interrogated Tehseen Akhtar, the last known chief of the now dormant home grown terror outfit Indian Mujahideen (IM), for seven hours after two smart phones were recovered from his barrack in Tihar’s jail number 8, one of which reportedly sent out a message that claimed responsibility for the explosives found in the SUV outside Ambani’s residence on February 25.

A Telegram channel was created by “jaishulhind” [Jaish-ul-Hind] on February 26 and a message claiming responsibility for parking the vehicle outside Antilia, where Ambani lives with his family, was posted from that channel. A message seeking payment in bitcoin, a crypto currency, was also sent out on this channel, which reportedly had 10 members.

The identity of the members is not immediately known as the maker of the channel closed the group the following day.

During the course of their investigation, the NIA discovered the Telegram message and traced it to the Tihar jail. The Delhi Police’s special cell was informed that two phones – an Oppo and a Vivo; both smart phones – were active inside the prison. At 8pm on March 11, Tihar prison authorities conducted a raid inside jail number 8 and found both phones.

Akhtar, a 30-year-old civil engineer from Darbangha, Bihar, is a close associate of arrested IM co-founder Yasin Bhatkal, and is known to the authorities as being both tech-savvy and an expert in making bombs.

Also Read | TRP manipulation case: Republic TV not termed accused, says Mumbai Police

Police were investigating whether Akhtar was involved in making the Telegram channel, as he is not the only one lodged inside the high risk cell of jail number 8. A second police officer said that Akhtar shares the cell with at least four other prisoners who have also been arrested on terror charges. The four men were arrested for being operatives of IM and Al Qaeda’s Indian sub-continent module.

On Saturday, Akhtar reportedly confessed to using one of the phones, and the interrogation will resume on Monday.

While most of the leaders behind IM are either convicted or behind bars, little is known about Jaish-ul-Hind.

“[Akhtar] seems to have a role in recovery of mobile phones from Tihar but one thing is for sure that there is no terror outfit named Jaish-ul-Hind on the ground. It’s most likely that somebody has played mischief or old Indian Mujahideen (IM) members are trying to be in limelight by claiming to be somebody else. We are investigating Tehseen Akhtar and other angles. We do not want to rule out anything yet,” said a Delhi Police officer, requesting anonymity.

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Sunday, December 05, 2021