HC asks district to control evidence of police station
The police is not cooperating with the probe into the custodial death and alleged torture of father-and-son duo P Jayaraj and J Bennicks, the Madurai bench of the Madras high court observed on Monday, ordering the Thoothukudi collector to depute revenue officials to take control and preserve evidence in the police station where the alleged crime occurred last week.
In an order, the court also directed forensic experts to assist in the process of evidence collection at Sathankulam police station and said it will not interfere with the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to transfer the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Late in the evening, the government formally announced the transfer of the case to the federal agency.
The court’s order came after it received an email report from the Kovilpatti judicial magistrate conducting the probe.
“A reading of [the report] clearly shows that the district police administration are doing everything within their command to prevent the learned magistrate from proceeding with the enquiry,” the bench of justices PN Prakash and B Pugalendhi said in the order.
The court initiated a contempt case against three officials -- additional deputy superintendent of police D Kumar, deputy superintendent of police C Prathapan and constable Maharajan. Accused of obstructing investigations and making an abusive remark against the magistrate, they were asked to appear before court at 10.30am on Tuesday. The court was of the view that the investigation will not be free and fair unless they are transferred.
“The policemen were not giving the records called for by the learned magistrate and it is seen that one of them, viz, Maharajan, police constable, Sathankulam police station, had made a very disparaging mark in Tamil to the learned magistrate,” the court order read.
Last week, the bench took suo-motu cognisance of the case that sparked nationwide outrage.
Bennicks, 31, and Jayaraj, 59, died on June 22 and June 23, respectively, after undergoing hours of alleged torture at the Sathankulam police station on June 19. The First Information Report (FIR) filed by the police booked them under several sections, including Section 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) and 353 (use of force to deter public servant from duty). However, eyewitness accounts refute the claims in the FIR, stating that the duo was tortured severely by the policemen while in custody.
The court on Monday directed that a photocopy of the preliminary post-mortem certificate be submitted to its registrar, the original copy should be sent to the chief judicial magistrate of Thoothukudi, who in turn should submit it to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
So far, Thoothukudi police have suspended inspector Sridhar, and two sub-inspectors P Raghuganesh and Balakrishnan in connection to the deaths. Thoothukudi superintendent of police Arun Balagopalan, who was asked by the court to submit an interim report on the alleged custodial deaths last week, did not respond to calls or messages.
Thoothukudi district collector Nanduri said a revenue official appointed by him was stationed at the police station since Monday afternoon, following the court’s directive.
“The officer will collect and preserve all clue materials related to the case and hand it over to the Kovilpatti Judicial Magistrate,” Nanduri said.
On June 28, chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami had announced the state’s intention to seek the high court’s approval for the central agency probe. The bench said that its permission was not required for the state government to transfer this case to the CBI. The court also laid out procedural formalities for post-mortem report and case diaries on the premise that it is to be handed over to the investigating officer of the CBI.
Since Bennicks’ and Jayaraj’s deaths, similar instances of past police torture at the Sathankulam police station have emerged, with protests and demonstrations taking place across the state. Their family has alleged that both suffered brutal beatings and were bleeding from the rectum that led to their eventual death on June 22 late night and 23 early morning, respectively, at the Kovilpatti government hospital.
On June 19, the Sathankulam police arrested the father and son for keeping their shop open beyond Covid-19 related curfew. The FIR stated that during the police’s routine rounds to enforce the lockdown, they found the duo’s shop APJ mobiles open at around 9.15 pm. While they dispersed the crowd, the FIR stated that the father and son fought and intimidated the police, rolled on the floor and sustained hidden injuries in the process. This has been refuted by several eyewitness accounts.
A lawyer A K Venugopal told HT that he was in the Sathankulam police station for another case with six other lawyers from 7pm. “Inspector Raghuganesh brought Jayaraj in by his collar around 7.45pm,” said Venugopal adding that Bennicks came later and tried to stop the police when he saw his father being hit. CCTV footage released by local television media on Monday which HT could not independently verify also showed that there was no altercation or crowding in the mobile shop.
Venugopal said that he told the police and volunteers (roped into aid with lockdown measures) to stop hitting Jayaraj and Bennicks. “The volunteers cleaned the lathis repeatedly saying that it may be infected by coronavirus and handed it over to the police,” he said. “We were sent outside and they locked the station.”
Local residents, family and activists protested at Kamaraj statue near the police station through the night. On June 20, the father and son were taken to the government hospital for a check-up and magistrate to extend their custody before detaining them at the Kovilpatti sub jail 100 km away from Sathankulam. The dereliction of duty of all three arms of the law is being questioned. Activists have been calling for murder charges against the police involved and say that the case being transferred to the CBI may not see time-bound justice.