15 years after teenager Ishrat Jahan was killed along with three others in an alleged fake encounter, a special CBI court in Ahmedabad Thursday discharged former police officers D G Vanzara and N K Amin. Prime accused in the alleged encounter that took place on Ahmedabad’s outskirts on June 15, 2004, Vanzara was then Deputy Commissioner of Police in the Detection of Crime Branch, Ahmedabad, while Amin was Assistant Commissioner of Police in the DCB.

Why have the two been discharged?
This was because the Gujarat government refused to sanction their prosecution under CrPC Section 197, required for taking cognisance of an offence alleged to have been committed by a government servant while acting or purporting to act in discharge of official duty.

In 2018, the Home Ministry had refused sanction for prosecution of four Intelligence Bureau (IB) officers who were accused in the case. They too have sought discharge and the case is with the chief judicial magistrate.

What happened in the alleged encounter and its aftermath?
At dawn, the Detection of Crime Branch led by Vanzara gunned down Ishrat and three men in an alleged encounter. Gujarat Police claimed to have acted on an intelligence input that the three men, including two Pakistani nationals, were travelling to kill then Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The FIR of the Ahmedabad City Crime Branch filed that day did not identify Ishrat, describing her as “one woman terrorist seated on the seat adjacent to the driver’s seat”.

In 2006, Ishrat’s mother, Shamima Kauser, filed a petition in Gujarat High Court, seeking a CBI investigation into the alleged fake encounter. A year later, Vanzara and two other IPS officers were arrested in another encounter case, in which Sohrabuddin Sheikh had been killed.

How did the investigation, and the case in court, progress over the last 15 years?
A High Court-appointed special investigation team and the CBI found the Ishrat Jahan encounter to be “fake”. The CBI implicated the Gujarat Police as well as the IB in the alleged murders

The first doubts were raised in a 2009, when an inquiry by metropolitan magistrate S P Tamang concluded the encounter to be fake and said that it was carried out only for rewards and promotions.

In August 2009, the Centre filed an affidavit in which it indicated Ishrat was an LeT member, citing a purported LeT mouthpiece report that had acknowledged her membership. The Centre, however retracted the claim within a month saying that these links were “needlessly misinterpreted”. But in 2016, a Home Ministry official claimed he was forced to file the second affidavit that removed references to the alleged LeT links, and that he had been tortured by an officer (Satish Verma, IPS) who was part of the HC-appointed SIT.

The CBI FIR booked 20 police officers including former Gujarat DGP K R Kaushik on charges of murder and criminal conspiracy and under sections of Arms Act. Chargesheets were filed against eight Gujarat police officers. Besides Vanzara and Amin, the others were P P Pandey (who retired as Gujarat police chief), G L Singhal, Tarun Barot, Anaju Chaudhary, J G Parmar and Mohan Kalasava (who died in 2007) for murder, abduction, destruction of evidence and other charges. Also chargesheeted were four IB officials — retired Special Director Rajinder Kumar who was Joint Director of the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau (SIB) in Gujarat at the time of the encounter, besides T Mittal, M K Sinha and Rajiv Wankhede — for criminal conspiracy to abduct and illegally confine four people killed in a fake encounter. The chargesheet against them did not stand when the MHA refused to clear their prosecution.

On what grounds has the prosecution faced criticism?
Questions have been raised by Shamima Kauser’s counsel on the prosecution seeking sanction for prosecuting Vanzara and Amin when the court had already refused to discharge them in August 2018 saying their role was “greater” than that of former DGP P P Pandey, who was the first to be discharged in February 2018. Kauser’s counsel also argued against defining the carrying out of police encounters as “part of official duty”.

Pandey was discharged on the grounds that key witnesses had made contradictory statements and that the CBI had not sought prior sanction to prosecute him. In the case of Vanzara and Amin, however, the court while refusing to discharge them also asked the CBI whether it would seek sanction for their prosecution, which the agency did.

Discharge is dealt with under Section 227 of CrPC: “If, upon consideration of the record of the case and the documents submitted therewith, and after hearing the submissions of the accused and the prosecution in this behalf, the judge considers that there is not sufficient ground for proceeding against the accused, he shall discharge the accused and record his reasons for so doing.” Given that there remains no new evidence to be presented, if either CBI or the victim chooses to approach a higher court, the case would largely rely on how the higher court exercises Section 227.

What about the other accused policemen?
Four other policemen are out on bail and were reinstated, some of them having retired. They are Singhal, Parmar, Barot and Chaudhary. They will now be tried by the special CBI court. Singhal was promoted as IGP earlier this year and heads the Commando Training Centre in Gandhinagar. If they file discharge pleas as well, the course of trial will take a route similar to that of Vanzara and Amin. In case of no discharge plea, charges will be framed by the court.

Does Thursday’s development finally mean the end of the road for the Ishrat Jahan case?
No. Shamima Kauser or the CBI can challenge the CBI court’s order in a higher court. The appeal period is 60 days for the CBI and 90 days for the victim. Shamima’s legal representative told this newspaper that they do plan to approach the Gujarat HC but only after they see the order. Meanwhile, the other accused who are out on bail in the case can seek discharge on grounds of parity.

What is the status of other encounter cases in which Vanzara and Amin were involved?
Vanzara has been discharged in the other encounter cases — those of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Tulsiram Prajapati. Amin too was an accused in the Sohrabuddin case and has been discharged.

(Adapted from The Indian Express)