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Law

Hyderabad 2019 'Encounter': Inquiry Panel Exposes Cover-Up, Lies in Official Narrative

On October 11-12, the Supreme Court-appointed commission posed 160 questions to V.C. Sajjanar, the police official under whose jurisdiction the 'encounter' took place, and recorded 'chilling lies'.

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Note: This is the third report on the public hearing by the inquiry commission, appointed by the Supreme Court, to probe the Hyderabad ‘encounter’ of 2019. Read the first and second reports here. 

On December 6, 2019, in the aftermath of the death of four accused in the rape and murder of a veterinarian in Hyderabad, media across the country splashed the face of V.C. Sajjanar, the then commissioner of police, Cyberabad, across broadcasts. Citizens watched his press conferences with a mixed sense of anxiety and amazement. He detailed the graphic sequences of the crime against the veterinarian and chilling ‘efficiency of his boys’. Accolades poured in for him, for the ‘instant justice’ he meted out to the accused. Sajjanar gracefully accepted all of it.

Exactly two years after those deaths, the facts in the case, which were initially covered up due to public frenzy, slowly began to come into light. As the inquiry commission dismantled the tenacious official narrative engraved into popular perception, one lie after other came out.

It posed 160 questions to Sajjanar on October 11-12 and recorded ‘chilling lies’, which had so far been described as ‘errors’.

No register of arms and ammunition maintained? 

The commission began its examination by questioning Sajjanar about the constitution and supervision of the special operations teams (SOT) that killed the four accused. The government order of 2004 is clear how they are constituted, monitored and who they reported to. But he unsuccessfully tried to claim that the team did not report to him, but to officers below him.

Also read: Police Come Under Fire in First Public Hearing of Inquiry Panel on 2019 Hyderabad Encounter

As per the police manual, only after his approval is the team provided with weapons. A separate arms and ammunition register has to be maintained which should reflect the purpose, duration and the date of issuance of the weapon. But the arms registers of the police stations in the case have no such entries of the weapons issued to the police who fired. To this, he glibly replied that it had to be explained by the officer who maintained the records and it was not his ultimate responsibility.

Monitoring of the case

Sajjanar constituted nine teams to investigate the death of the veterinarian and instructed them in writing “to report the progress from time to time to him without fail”. Yet he denied the fact of monitoring the investigation and claimed that his role was limited to taking routine briefings from junior officers – neither did he agree that he personally identified the members of SOT in this case.

But his memo dated November 30, 2019 is categorical that they “were deputed for security and to aid ACP, Shadnagar during the custodial investigation of the accused persons”. It also revealed that he endorsed the specific vehicle for the transportation of the accused to the spot of firing. He also sanctioned six long weapons to the escort police, while the accused were taken to the place of firing purportedly to recover the incriminating material.

An NHRC team visiting the encounter site. Photo: PTI/Files.

This might surprise a layperson, but he informed the commission that long weapons like AK-47 and SLR were sanctioned to the police irrespective of the nature of the crime. But he could not recollect any specific instances of rape and murder in which he earlier sanctioned them. In any case, his disavowing of monitoring the entire case must shock the police apparatus.

Press statements based on confessions only

On November 29, the commissioner described to the press the graphic details of the crime allegedly committed by the accused, but confessed before the commission that it was purely based on the briefings by his DCP. He addressed the press at 7 pm, but as per the case diary, the accused completed their confessional statements by 10 pm –nor did he read the confessions of the accused before addressing the press.

Then he claimed that his press statements were based on the CCTV footage and other scientific evidence collected, but his description that the accused had stuffed the clothes in the mouth of the victim and molested cannot be based on the CCTV footage. And the recovery of underwear, purse and cards of the victim reflects no scientific evidence. As a result, he had to confess that there was no scientific evidence before his press meeting.

Did he not think it was improper to reveal to the press of the arrest and confessional statements before the accused were produced before the judicial magistrate? If they were intended, as he claimed, to ask the public to provide information, then where was the need to disclose the confessions of the accused? How frivolous one could get?

He claimed the press conference was impromptu, but the commission pointed out his detailed PowerPoint presentation made with the photographs of the accused and other details. “It was organised by the DCP,” the chief of police floundered. He alone addressed the press conference, yet he was not aware of the written press statement issued on the occasion.

He agreed that the press conference was based on the confessions by the first accused only, as the statements of the other three accused were not yet recorded. In that case, was there no chance of their statements being different and inconsistent with that of the first accused? But the police officer didn’t think so and asserted that his press conference would not interfere with the investigation of their case.

Special Operations Teams 

He tried to claim that he did not form the special operations team (SOT) and it does not report to him. But his memo forming them does not reflect it was formed by others. His claim that the SOT involved in the firing reported to the DCP was rebutted by the commission’s lawyer in multiple ways.

First, he claimed that he did not permit the team to keep the accused in the ‘safe house’/guest house and was not informed of their further interrogation. On the other hand, he was neither informed of the recording of the second confessional statement of the accused nor of their shifting to Chattanpally for recovery of incriminating material on December 5.

These claims were clearly refuted by the statements of other policemen involved in the investigation. Moreover, the police memorandum of 2004 specifies “to form a separate team of dedicated personnel under the name of Special Operations Team under the direct control of Commissioner of Police”. It mandates ‘Ten Commandments’ the team has to obey.

They mandate that the team “shall not stray from the orders issued by the Commissioner of Police” and report to him alone. This memo has not been withdrawn since.  The policemen viz Lal Madhar, Ravi and Sirajuddin are part of this team. Consequently, he failed to muster the evidence in support of his claim.

Flouting of norms

Sajjanar further claimed that he came to know that the accused were taken to the place of firing only on December 6. He reached the scene of the offence by 8:30 am and spent two to three minutes with ACP Surender, the investigation officer, but did not interact with him. He spent one and a half hours at the spot but did not give any instructions to the police about the post-mortem of the dead bodies.

When asked why did not he instruct his officers to wait for the arrival of the judicial magistrate before the shifting of dead bodies, he categorically said that in Telangana, the inquest was conducted by the executive magistrate as per the guidelines of the NHRC, but he failed to point out any order from NHRC. Then he said the practice was as per the Supreme Court judgement in PUCL v. State of Maharashtra.

He also further confirmed that in all the encounter cases in the state, the inquest had been done by the executive magistrate only. At this stage, the commission doubted his knowledge about the judgment. The commission expressed its shock on September 25, 2021 when his deputy Prakash Reddy, IPS, pleaded his ignorance of the legal mandate of the inquest by the judicial magistrate in custodial deaths.

Also read: Probe Into 2019 Hyderabad Encounter Continues, Commission Brings up Some Inconsistencies

It is not surprising that the practice long in development has not punished a single police officer accused of fake encounters since 1968. The commission reminded him of the similar pattern of recovery of incriminating material and the subsequent death of the accused in 2008 when he was the superintendent of police of Warangal.

‘Impromptu’ press conference and poorly organised lies

In the second press conference he addressed at the spot of the killing, he said that all the police accompanying the accused were armed, but which, he told the commission, was a wrong line, due to his poor Telugu. He further conceded that his statement that articles of the victim were recovered from the back of the bush was also erroneous (because in the second confessional statements of the accused their hidden place had changed).

Women offer sweets to policemen as they commend the Hyderabad police for its strong action after the encounter in which four persons accused of rape and murder were killed in Hyderabad on December 6, 2019. Photo: PTI.

He denied saying in the press conference that the safety catches of the weapons of the police were unlocked, but the video played by the commission proved him lying. He further agreed that he erroneously stated in the press conference that DNA profiling of the accused had been done. One more erroneous statement he made, which he confessed to, was that the materials of the victim were recovered, while they were yet to be done. According to him this error too was due to his poor Telugu, but he has been working for 20 years in Telangana.

But these justifications are blatant lies as even in his address in English, he categorically stated that the power bank and other articles of the victim were recovered. When confronted, he claimed this error was due to a rush of questions from the journalists, but he did not agree that he prejudiced the investigation with these. He did not also consider it was inappropriate to address a press conference in four languages while the inquest and panchanamas were yet to be conducted and recorded respectively, on the dead bodies.

Relying on the word of his DCP, he claimed he addressed the press conference impromptu. But it was very well organised with chairs, tables, microphones, power generators and tents in the fields and bushes where incriminating material could be hidden. Where did the chairs, tables, microphones, power generator and tents come from in this impromptu press conference?

His reply was that he did not know. Ironically, in the video played to contradict his lies, one can see him repeatedly asking the journalists not to spread the rumours and always verify with him, ‘the fountainhead of facts’.

Also read: Hyderabad Encounter: The Response to Brutality Cannot Be Brutality

The weary-looking commission members asked whether he agreed that the case shook the nation and to its grave nature. If yes, how can he treat it as a routine street crime and limit his role to the routine briefings of his deputies? He disagreed with the commission and said as chief of police, his duty was to aid his officers doing regular investigations. To a question, he replied that he never contradicted sections of the press which portrayed him as an ‘encounter specialist’.

Major official cover-up

Since August 21, the commission has examined 38 witnesses with thousands of questions. The witnesses include executive and judicial magistrates, doctors, forensic experts and civilians associated with the case. Their enormous complicity – willing or opportunistic – of these witnesses with the coercive apparatus is beyond belief.

For instance, on November 30, 2019, the executive magistrate remanded the accused to jail for 14 days while he can only order for seven days. He did not care about any legal requirements to protect the rights of the accused. More shockingly, the judicial magistrate confessed before the commission on October 11 that he did not insist on the physical production of the accused when he ordered police custody to them on December 2, 2019. His order was completely based on the order of the executive magistrate.

These mechanisms of callousness are deployed against prisoners on an everyday basis.

Murali Karnam, PhD, teaches political science and penology at the Nalsar University of Law, Hyderabad.