Kerala police suspend seven personnel over Sreejith 'custodial death' case, but uncomfortable questions linger

Bowing to public outcry, the police in Kerala have finally suspended seven policemen over the suspected custodial death of Sreejith in Varapuzha at Kochi’s outskirts.

But will this initial step ultimately lead to justice for the 26-year-old deceased man and his family? A tough one to answer at the moment.

What makes one think otherwise is the action of the same police over the last few days since the formation of a special investigation team to probe the case.

Even when the state promises an honest investigation by a special team of officers which has already started its preliminary task of recording statements, a huge shadow looms over the credibility of such an investigation, because there are enough reasons to believe that a parallel cover-up operation is underway.

But before we get to that, senior legal experts in the state have voiced their strong reservations over the police investigating the case, since the alleged perpetrators themselves are men in uniform.
“This is a crime alleged to have been committed by members of the police force. How can the same police force investigate it? If this happens, it will only amount to an investigation done by the accused for the benefit of the accused. Many a times, the Supreme Court has observed that when the police are the accused you will get no fair investigation by the verifying police team. So only a central agency can do justice for the victim,’’ Advocate T Asaf Ali, former Director General of Prosecution told Firstpost.

 Kerala police suspend seven personnel over Sreejith custodial death case, but uncomfortable questions linger

File image of Kerala police. AFP

The former state prosecutor’s words are derived from a number of judgments by the apex court where the court has categorically repeated that “producing evidence against the police is very difficult because the police feel bound by their ties of brotherhood.’’

Many believe that in the case of Sreejith too, these ‘ties of brotherhood’ could actually end up destroying evidence.

The State Human Rights Commission which has been following up on the case right from the start also reiterates that it also has little faith in the present investigation.

“This is a case which started with an illegal arrest. But when the time has come for a legal arrest, the police are looking away. Why are the police not registering a case of murder even after a week, when there is such clear evidence? Unless you take steps now, this case will slip away, the perpetrators will get away and the victim won’t get justice,’’ P Mohana Das, Acting Chairperson of Kerala State Human Rights Commission said.

'Fudged' statement, 'fake' witness

The sequence of events in the last few days has also been reflective of this ‘brotherhood’ phenomenon.

Sreejith was taken into custody after the suicide of a man called Vasudevan. As soon as Vasudevan’s son Vineesh said that he had not named Sreejith as an accused, the police came up with a document which purported to be Vineesh’s statement.

The document, circulated among the media by the police, contained Vineesh’s deposition where he is reported to have said that Sreejith was indeed among those who had attacked his house, leading to his father’s suicide.

However, a close look at the document blows the lid off the police’s game plan. The document had no signature, while the police in other cases usually make witnesses sign documents.
These doubts were further substantiated when the real statement which the police had initially given to the executive magistrate emerged.

It neither had Sreejith’s name as one of the 14 accused who attacked Vasudevan’s house nor any mention of his name in any capacity, which again testifies to the fact that taking him into custody was a grave mistake on the part of the police.

“I have always maintained this fact right from the beginning that I had not mentioned Sreejith’s name because I know him well and he was not among those who attacked our house. I don’t even know how the cops got the idea that he was behind the attack,’’ reiterates Vineesh Vasudevan.

From a fake statement to a fake witness, the police seem to be leaving no stone unturned to bolster their escape route.

Parameshwaran is a neighbour to Vasudevan and, according to a statement prepared by the police, Parameshwaran was a witness when the gang attacked Vasudevan’s house. The statement had also claimed that Parameshwaran had seen Sreejith and Vasudevan having a fist fight.

But on Thursday Parameshwaran had this to say. “I did not even know that my name was added in the list of witnesses. How can I be a witness to the fight when I was not even present in this locality?

But hardly had this interview of Parameshwaran been flashed on local television channels across Kerala that he changed his stand saying that the police had indeed recorded his statement and that Sreejith was involved in the issue.

It is here that a well orchestrated cover-up plan that involves not only the police but also the local leadership of the ruling party comes to light.

Parameshwaran happens to be the branch secretary of the CPM. Sensing that the initial statement given by him would seriously damage the police’s stand on the matter, Parameshwaran’s son Sharath claims that a few local leaders of the party had put immense pressure on his father to change his stand in favour of the police.

“A prominent local party leader came home just after my father’s statement appeared in the media. He then took him on his bike and retuned later in the evening. That’s when my father changed the stand. I am sure there was pressure put on my father to change his statement,’’ said Sharath.

Retired police officers say that such tactics are nothing new.

Since this is the most crucial time of the investigation where any small destruction of evidence can help the culprits get away, the policemen would go all out to save their colleagues.
The crucial question however is this — when and from whom did Sreejith suffer the fatal blows to his abdomen that led to his death?

Since the cops who arrested him had not taken a proper medical check-up of him to show that he had prior injuries before the arrest, the assumption as per law in custodial deaths is that deceased would have suffered the injuries while in custody and those who had taken him and kept him in custody are liable for his condition.

But it is this chain of argument that the cops are desperately trying to break up.

“From whatever I can gather at the moment, there is a mad rush to establish the fact that Sreejith had suffered the injuries elsewhere and not when he was in custody. That is why they want to somehow establish the fact that he was involved in a physical fight with the deceased Vasudevan and want to create testimonies to prove it. Only a very transparent and efficient investigator can get to the bottom of this. Otherwise, these cops will get away easily,’’ retired Superintendent of Police George Joseph said.

Secondly, the attempt had been to disprove the claim that Sreejith was arrested despite no evidence against him. This is why both Vineesh and Parameshwaran’s fake statements have been circulated. However, much to the disappointment of the police, these got busted in the local media.

Some feel that it will not be easy for the cops to get away, as there are serious questions on the manner of Sreejith’s arrest.

Sreejith was actually picked up by what is called the ‘rural tiger force’, a shadow unit of policemen said to be under the command of Ernakulam Rural Superintendent AV George who actually had nothing to do with the case filed against Sreejith at the Varapuzha police station.

What puts the police in a further tight spot is the claim made by both the Varapuzha circle and sub-inspector, who are under suspension now, that they were initially not even aware of Sreejith’s arrest.

“Why the rural SP got involved in the matter without having any jurisdiction to do this will be a tough question for him to answer. On whose behalf did he send his men to arrest Sreejith? This is highly illegal because the constables who went are from the armed reserved camp. They can only assist an inspector but cannot by themselves take a person into custody. The police will have a tough time in court,’’ added Subash Babu, another senior retired police officer.

Babu also added that unlike many other recent cases of custodial death like the Udayakumar murder case in Thiruvananthapuram in 2007 or that of Sampath in Palakkad in 2010 or the infamous

Rajan custody death during the days of emergency in 1976, there is a lot of evidence in this case. But all will depend on how seriously the probe is pursued, he added.

On Friday, though the three constables who had taken Sreejith into custody were themselves taken into custody by the investigation team, they were let off by the evening.

“Only a sustained interrogation of those three will bring out the real picture of this case,’’ added George Joseph.

Political hand at play?

The brazen step of the Ernakulam SP to send his men to take Sreejith into custody is what makes the case murkier.

There is an allegation doing the rounds that a senior CPM leader had given the SP directions to take Sreejith into custody.

The BJP, which has already asked for a CBI probe into the custodial death, is gearing up for a satyagraha in front of the Inspector General (IG)’s office in Kochi.

That Sreejith was a member of the BJP and had also held a key post with the Yuva Morcha, a Sangh Parivar outfit has also added more dimensions to the political controversy.

“It is very clear from Parameshwaran’s son’s statement that the CPM is knee deep in this case and they are playing an ugly game using the police. The incident was a local issue between two families. But using that, the CPM has killed one of our promising workers. Only a CBI probe will bring out the truth,’’ says AN Radhakrishnan, general secretary of the BJP based in Kochi.

The CPM has however called the allegation raised by Parameshawaran’s son as part of a conspiracy to malign the ruling coalition.

The next few days will be absolutely crucial for Sreejith’s family to get justice, as experts say that in any criminal investigation, the first few days are the most crucial in gathering evidence.

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Updated Date: Apr 15, 2018 15:48:10 IST