All 22 accused, including 21 cops, acquitted in controversial Sohrabuddin encounter case

MUMBAI: All 22 accused in the alleged fake encounter killings of gangster Sohrabuddin Shaikh, his wife Kausar Bi and his aide Tulsi Prajapati were acquitted Friday by a special CBI court because of insufficient evidence, even as it expressed sorrow over the loss of “three lives.”

Special CBI Judge S J Sharma said in his ruling the system demands that the court go solely by evidence, and observed that the prosecution had failed to establish a cogent case to suggest that there was any conspiracy to kill the three people, or that the accused persons had any role in it.

“When this court ultimately went through all the evidence and testimonies on record, it concluded that no case of conspiracy could be established. Also, no link between these 22 persons and the three deaths could be established,” he said

All the accused, who were mostly police officials from Gujarat and Rajasthan, were out on bail during the year-long trial. The 13-year-old case saw several twists and turns, including 92 prosecution witnesses turning hostile. At one point, BJP president Amit Shah was also arrested briefly in 2010 in the case before being discharged in December 2014.

Sharma said that while there was no denying that Shaikh and the others were killed, “going by the evidence on record, the court could not conclude that the present accused persons could be questioned, or, held accountable for those deaths.”

The three victims who were returning to Sangli in Maharashtra from Hyderabad in a bus were taken into custody by a police team on the night of November 22-23, 2005. The couple were taken in one vehicle and Prajapati in another. CBI, the prosecuting agency, said Shaikh was killed on November 26, 2005,allegedly by a joint team comprising Gujarat and Rajasthan police, and Kausar Bi three days later. Prajapati, who was lodged in an Udaipur central jail, was killed in an encounter on the Gujarat-Rajasthan border on December 27, 2006.

Of the 22 accused, 21 are junior police officers from Gujarat and Rajasthan, who the CBI said were part of the teams that abducted the three and later killed them in staged encounters.

The remaining accused was the owner of the farm house in Gujarat where Shaikh and Kausar Bi were illegally detained before they were killed.

“The prosecution has failed to put forth any documentary or substantive evidence to suggest or establish the conspiracy theory against the 22 accused. It has failed to establish all charges levelled against them. Hence all the accused stand acquitted,” the judge said.

The court cannot rely solely on “circumstantial and hearsay evidence”, he said.All 22 Acused

Police said Sohrabuddin was linked with terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and was allegedly conspiring to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat.

Despite sincere efforts made by the prosecution, a cogent case could not be established since the CBI lacked documentary evidence and reliable witnesses, the judge said.

“Two main prosecution witnesses turned hostile. What could the prosecution have done? It couldnt have forced them not to turn hostile,” the judge said.

When the CBI took over the case, it had charged 38 persons, including Amit Shah, who was then Gujarat home minister, Gulabchand Kataria, the then Rajasthan home minister, and and senior IPS officers like D G Vanzara and P C Pande. The prosecution had examined 210 witnesses, of which 92 turned hostile.

Sixteen people, including Shah, Kataria, Vanzara and Pande were earlier discharged by the CBI court due to lack of evidence against them.

The case also evoked controversy when judge B H Loya, who was presiding over the CBI court, died three years ago after a heart attack. His family made unsubstantiated allegations that the judge was offered a huge bribe to rule in favour of the prime accused.

The case was initially probed by the Gujarat CID before the CBI took over in 2010. The Supreme Court in 2013 directed that the trial be shifted to Mumbai from Gujarat on the central agency’s request to ensure a fair trial.

The CBI had claimed that Vanzara had summoned Gujarat IPS Ashish Pandya while the latter was on leave, to be part of Prajapati’s alleged encounter.

“The CBI failed to produce any substantial evidence, phone records etc to prove that Vanzara called Pandya for this specific purpose. There is nothing to conclude that Vanzara had any knowledge of the alleged conspiracy,” the court said.

Shaikh’s brother Rubabuddin, who was present in court Friday, said he was disappointed at the verdict and would appeal against it in the Supreme Court.

After the judge pronounced the verdict, all the accused, who were present in court, congratulated and hugged each other with relief writ large on their faces. PTI