Satyam Babu spent eight years in prison for a crime he had not committed. On March 31, 2017 the high court of Hyderabad categorically held that he was ‘not guilty’. Not just that. The bench of Judges C.V. Nagarjuna Reddy and M.S.K. Jaiswal held that an innocent man had been implicated and ordered the state of Andhra Pradesh to pay a sum of Rs 1,00,000 as the costs incurred by him. The bench held that this was a ase where the investigating officers should be referred to an enquiry committee that looks into cases of defective investigations and dereliction of duty. The judgement has, more importantly, inaugurated a new jurisprudence that allows a victim of malicious investigation and prosecution to seek compensation from the state.
This judgment is being discussed widely in Andhra Pradesh. It is one of those sensational cases, with the media following every aspect of it. Even after ten years, the case continues to be part of the public imagination. There is a palpable outrage at the way the police deliberately sabotaged the investigation and the malicious prosecution that compounded the police inaction. The case is comparable to the Aarushi Talwar case that shook Delhi in 2008, but has attracted little ‘national’ attention as it occurred in the South Indian town of Vijayawada.
Babu was charged of murder and rape of Ayesha Meera, a 17-year-old bachelors student in pharmacy, living in a working women’s hostel in Vijayawada. He was accused of entering the hostel, raping and murdering Meera. The police claim that the investigation was done thoroughly, including a DNA test and a handwriting match. The case rested on scientific evidence alone. Strangely, in a hostel that had about 40 women students, there was no eyewitness.
Following the crime, it soon became clear that the police were shielding the real culprits who were from a politically powerful family. There were massive protests in Vijayawada. The murder was grotesque. The shielding of culprits added exponentially to the murder and sexual violence. For eight months, the investigation drifted. Shamshad Begum, the mother of the victim, was often seen begging the police to investigate the “actual culprits”. Strangely, except the “actual culprits” the police diligently investigated all the young men of the surrounding locality, including the uncle of Meera. Finally, the investigation zeroed in on Babu, a Dalit Christian lorry cleaner. After nine days in illegal detention, he was declared to have confessed to the crime. It was claimed that the DNA and that handwriting both matched. Further, the police said that he was the accused in eight cases wherein he preyed on women, molested them and even tried to kill them.
During the trial, senior counsel Bojja Tarakam got five of the eight criminal cases quashed in the high court. Tarakam vehemently argued before the mahila sessions court at Vijayawada that Babu was a victim of police conspiracy and that he was being implicated just to give a false closure to the case. In a dramatic move, Shamshad Begum, the first witness in the trial, said that Babu was not the culprit. Overlooking the gaping holes in the prosecution account, in September 2010, the sessions court convicted Babu. In hindsight, one can see the immense pressure under which the sessions court would have conducted the hearing – burdened as it was by the agenda of securing justice for Meera at any cost. A ‘cry for justice’ cost Babu eight years of his life and impaired his physical and mental health.
After six years, the case came up for appeal in October, 2016 in the high court. By then, Tarakam had passed away. Human rights lawyer Vasudha Nagaraj and well known criminal lawyer V. Pattabhi argued the appeal. It has been reported that the appeal was argued at length and the high court heard the arguments with growing incredulity. What emerged was the deliberate acts of the investigating officers in disrupting and subverting the investigation. The so called DNA and handwriting samples appeared to be completely manipulated. In legal parlance, there was no chain of custody to establish the collection and transmission of the samples from the body to the forensic lab. Did the accused have the time to kill, drag, rape and write a letter in a hostel that housed more than 40 students on that particular night? The prosecution was unable to answer any of these questions.
In the concluding paragraph of its 82-page judgement, the high court observes: “ …within the framework of which we exercise our appellate jurisdiction, we are unable to award monetary compensation for the irreparable damage caused to the appellant… However, we leave the appellant free (if he is not already drained of his energies) to sue the State for damages for malicious prosecution.”
Rarely has the judiciary exhibited such empathy for the accused and for the complainant. The judgement has proved Shamshad Begum right. Even if it comes after eight years, the recognition of the high court is invaluable, that the investigation in the case was deliberately sabotaged “to protect members of an influential family”.
However, the judgement has reopened the question of justice for Meera. The murder continues to be a festering wound raising several questions about the protection that the state can guarantee to women who suffer violence. This judgement should serve as a benchmark for responsible investigations and one hopes that the state of Andhra Pradesh will rise to the challenge. It is also important that the necessary infrastructural changes will be made in the police administration and the judiciary to enable responsible and sensitive investigation and prosecution. Perhaps it is too much to ask that there will be no political interference in such investigations.
Rama S. Melkote is former professor of political science at Osmania University.