Later today a special court in Ahmedabad will receive the Central Bureau of Investigations’ first charge sheet in its ongoing investigation into the alleged murders of Ishrat Jahan, Javed Sheikh, Zeeshan Johar and Amjad Ali Rana.
For everyone concerned—the families of the deceased; the police officers who will now be charged with their murder; intelligence services facing potentially the greatest scandal since independence; politicians aware that the fallout could shape their fortunes in 2014—the stakes are huge.
First, this is a first charge-sheet; it’s unlikely to address questions of the background and possible terrorist activities of the accused or the possible conspiracy behind their execution.
Then, beware the early sound bites: it’ll take a while for journalists and lawyers to wade through what the CBI has said. CBI charge sheets tend to cite dozens of witnesses, and often contain thousands of pages of supporting documents. In keeping with the government’s commitment to transparency and efficiency, the CBI (and National Investigations Agency) doesn't provide copies of its charge-sheets, even though they’re public documents. This means that journalists have to pester sources, or find some court tout they can pay Rs 100 to for a copy.
Finally, remember that evidence in a criminal case is almost always very complex. We know one thing for a fact: the CBI failed to file charges against the eight Gujarat Police officers it is now expected to allege carried out murder within then legally-mandated 90 days from their arrest. This entitled them to walk on bail. There’s all sorts of potential reasons for the delay—perhaps the CBI was waiting on expert reports, or having trouble corroborating what a witness said—but the delay suggests the evidence is highly complex, and open to interpretation.
1. Did Narendra Modi, or other top politicians, order the execution of the four deceased?
It’s unlikely we’ll get an answer to this politically-charged question immediately. There may, however, be some clues to what evidence the CBI is working with. Tehelka’s Rana Ayyub, among others, reported that the CBI has sworn testimony to prove then-Intelligence Bureau station chief Rajendra Kumar and Gujarat Police crime branch chief DG Vanzara said the encounter was authorised by “white beard” and “black beard”. These are alleged to be references to Modi and his home minister. There are also reports that Girish Singhal, the senior-most of the eight officers likely to be charged with murder, made an audiotape of a meeting between Gujarat politicians and officials where plans to sabotage the investigation were made.
It remains unclear, though, what the substance of these conversations actually was; none of the reports quote from them. It is possible the charge-sheet may contain transcripts or excerpts.
Was the group kidnapped by police before the encounter?
Media accounts, as well as Congress politicians, have claimed the four deceased were in the custody of the Gujarat Police well before the encounter—i.e., they were kidnapped before being murdered. For the CBI to make the kidnapping story fly, it will need either a credible witness, or forensics—for example, Ishrat Jehan’s hair or blood in the place recovered from the place she was held. It’ll also need to explain away testimony that doesn't sit well with the kidnapping thesis. For example, mechanics at the Shakti Motor Garage outside Ahmedabad provided sworn testimony that Sheikh paid them Rs 1,025 for repairs to his car hours before the encounter.
Some reports have said the senior-most of the eight police officers, Girish Singhal, has given the CBI testimony exposing the kidnapping and execution. There are other reports which state this is incorrect. The charge-sheet will tell us who was right.
Either way, though, a statement by one accused against other accused isn't generally worth a lot to trial judges—for the obvious reason all kindergarten teachers (i.e., ‘Miss, Miss, the big kid made me do it’). The CBI will hopefully be bringing something more solid to the table—or should be, anyway—but we don’t know what it is.
Were the deceased executed in cold blood?
Investigators have long sought to establish that the pattern of bullet injuries on the deceased—and the manner in which their vehicle moved once a tyre was hit—show the encounter was staged. The High Court-appointed special investigation team conducted multiple reconstructions of the scene in an effort to prove the encounter was staged. Experts from the Central Forensic Sciences Laboratory and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, though, said the evidence was inconclusive; if anything, their narration sided with the police. The special investigation team rejected the experts’ findings, saying their work was shoddy.
That might or might not be the case—but the charge-sheet will have to explain how the conclusion of the staged encounter was arrived at. It might rely on alternative studies by experts that haven’t become public yet, or evidence the CFSL and AIIMS ignored, or that holy grail of criminal investigators, a credible witness.