File photo: Mansukh Hiran was found dead near Thane creek on March 9. (HT PHOTO)
File photo: Mansukh Hiran was found dead near Thane creek on March 9. (HT PHOTO)

NIA takes over Mansukh Hiran death case

The Centre on Saturday suo motu handed over the probe into Thane businessman Mansukh Hiran’s death to the National Investigation Agency (NIA)
By Neeraj Chauhan
UPDATED ON MAR 20, 2021 09:21 PM IST

The Centre on Saturday suo motu handed over the probe into Thane businessman Mansukh Hiran’s death to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The central agency has been probing the explosives-laden SUV which was found outside industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s residence last month.

The NIA will take over the case from the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), which has been investigating the possible murder of Hiran, a 48-year-old Thane-based auto spare parts dealer, who is linked to the Scorpio that was found with 20 loose gelatin sticks, and a threatening letter addressed to the Ambanis, outside their Antilia residence in Mumbai on February 25.

NIA officials will take over case files, including the post mortem report of Hiran, after re-registering the First Information Report (FIR) filed by the ATS on March 7 against unknown persons for the charge of murder.

The NIA arrested suspended police officer Sachin Vaze on March 13 for purportedly planting the explosives in the SUV. The ATS has also questioned Vaze over his role in Hiran’s death after it came to light, through Hiran’s wife’s statement, that the two knew each other.

The ATS on Saturday sought Vaze’s custody in the murder investigation but the NIA special court scheduled the hearing to March 25 when his custody with the NIA ends.

Also read: ‘Bring CIA and KGB too’ - Sena on transfer of Mansukh Hiran death probe to NIA

The ministry of home affairs (MHA) used its power under Section 8 of the NIA Act, which says that any connected offence related to a scheduled offence already under investigation, in which the suspect is the same, can also be taken over by the central anti-terror agency.

The ATS approached the special NIA court on Saturday seeking Vaze’s custody, but the court scheduled the hearing to March 25, when Vaze’s NIA custody ends.

After Hiran’s body washed up ashore at a creek in Thane district on March 5, Hiran’s wife, Vimla (43), gave a statement to the ATS which led them to file a murder case against unknown persons. Vimla told the ATS that she suspected that Vaze, who knew Hiran well, was involved in his death.

Vaze was also the lead investigator in the explosives case before it was briefly handed over to the ATS. The NIA took charge of the case on March 9.

“The NIA has the information that Vaze had even called Hiran for questioning when he was the Investigating Officer (IO) of the SUV case. We are trying to establish the chain of events after that,” an NIA official said on condition of anonymity.

Vaze had borrowed the SUV, that was found parked outside Antilia, in November 2020 and returned it to Hiran on February 5. Hiran had later reported the car as stolen on February 18, a day after he had met Vaze outside the police headquarters near Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT).

Vaze, who was attached to the Crime Intelligence Unit of the Mumbai Crime Branch, was suspended after Vimla’s allegations became the centre of a political storm between the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seeking his arrest while the House was in session.

On March 13, a Thane district and sessions court denied Vaze’s anticipatory bail plea and said that his custodial interrogation in Hiran’s murder investigation was “necessary”.

The NIA has identified Vaze’s co-conspirators in a bomb conspiracy case and some arrests are likely to happen after all the evidence is gathered, officials said.

The NIA team on Friday reconstructed the crime scene at Carmichael Road where the Ambanis live and the Scorpio was found parked. The probe agency is also examining several suspects and witnesses that include Mumbai police officers and some private persons, said an officer, who did not want to be named.

HT had reported that NIA’s investigations revealed that Vaze had planned the explosive conspiracy with some other players.

Political reactions

BJP leader Kirit Somaiya on Saturday said in a press conference that the party is happy that the NIA is looking at both the cases now and that the chief minister cannot save Vaze any longer.

The BJP, including leader of Opposition Devendra Fadnavis, has been alleging that Shiv Sena – a party that Vaze had joined when he had retired from the force in 2007 till he was reinstated in 2020 – had been protecting Vaze’s involvement in the case.

The claim has been repeatedly refuted by the party, including CM Uddhav Thackeray who had said that the investigation will be conducted in a free and fair manner, and anyone found guilty would be punished. However, editorials in the Sena mouthpiece Saamana had criticized the NIA for taking over the explosives investigation.

He said, “I recently spoke with the family of Mansukh Hiran and they are satisfied with the investigation. Antilia and Mansukh Hiran murder is one case that will now be investigated by a single agency. Chief minister Uddhav Thackeray tried to save Vaze by separating both the investigation,” Somaiya said.

Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut on Saturday said that the NIA taking over the probe into Hiran’s death was not a setback to the Mumbai police or the Maharashtra government.

“There was no need for the NIA to take up the probe into the explosives-laden SUV and Mansukh Hiran case. The Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) and Mumbai police were capable of investigating them,” Raut said in Nashik.

“However, the Centre is looking for opportunities to see how the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government can be put in a spot. You can bring the CIA or the KGB... It makes no difference. It is not a setback to the Mumbai police or the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government,” he said.

Investigations continue

Earlier this week, the NIA had recovered the original number plate of the Scorpio from a Mercedes Benz purportedly being used by Vaze, 6-7 other number plates; a set of clothes which Vaze had apparently changed after the SUV was dropped at Carmichael Road around 2.20 am on February 25; 5.75 lakh cash and a currency counting machine apart from kerosene oil suspected to have been used to burn the oversized kurta worn by the suspect.

Forensic officials on Friday said that the NIA team made Vaze walk on paths marked with start and end points, while two forensic teams took pictures and made a video for a gait analysis.

The images will be fed in a computerised system along with parameters like height, weight and width of the person which will be compared to the video from a CCTV grab that emerged last week that showed a man in what seemed to be a PPE kit or a long kurta, with his face covered, walking on Carmichael Road when the SUV was parked.

An NIA team visited Vaze’s house on Saturday afternoon for over two hours. Also, the deputy commissioner of police, ATS, Rajkumar Shinde visited the Thane ATS office in Wagle estate for an investigation.

A team comprising three NIA officials accompanied by local police also visited Vaze’s Saket Complex residence in Thane. “The team reached the house at 12:30 pm on Saturday and was there till almost 2:30 pm. This was their second visit to Vaze’s house, the team had earlier visited for over six hours on Wednesday,” a police officer said.

With inputs from Manish K Pathak and Faisal Tandel

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