Shortly after the sessions court found encounter specialist Pradeep Sharma ‘not guilty’ in the Lakhan Bhaiya fake encounter case, his lawyers attempted to have him released on a bond. The court, though, had a zinger of a lesson to impart to the advocates.
“I have not said he is acquitted yet. There is a difference between being acquitted and being not guilty,” judge VD Jadhavar pointed out to the defence.
Former cop Sharma dodged another bullet on Friday, after he was cleared of all charges against him in the 2006 fake encounter case of Ramnarayan Gupta alias Lakhan Bhaiya in Versova.
Though still technically a prisoner, a triumphant Sharma, dressed in a beige shirt and blue jeans, strutted out of courtroom after the verdict, even as the crestfallen family members of those convicted looked on and cried.
Special Public Prosecutor Vidya Kasle too, looked disappointed. As the verdict for Accused #1 -- Sharma – was read out, the once-charismatic officer remained poker-faced. He declined to comment to the media.
One of the convicted officers told MiD DAY, “What can I do… what had to happen, happened. Sohrabuddin, Ishrat Jahan… it’s only because of these cases that this has happened. We’ll figure out what to do next in the High Court.”
Wife of Sandeep Sardar, who is convicted of abetting the murder, said tearfully, “My husband is innocent. The charges are the complete opposite of what he has done.” She urged the media to support her cause, even as her husband comforted her.
Judge Jadhavar had spent over four months drafting the judgment, even as the prosecution and the accused waited on tenterhooks. After a brief scare when it was felt the judge might be transferred, the vigil for the judgment continued.
According to sources, the judgment may run into over a thousand pages.
Incidentally, the trial had faced a major setback after a key witness, Anil Bheda, who was originally picked up along with Lakhan Bhaiya turned up dead.
On Monday, the court is likely to begin hearing arguments on the quantum of sentence to be handed down to each of the accused. Those convicted of murder will argue against the death penalty, and favour life imprisonment.
This may be a difficult task, as the Supreme Court had, while rejecting some of the accused’s bail a few years ago, observed that police officers convicted of encounter killings fulfil the condition of ‘rarest of rare’, and are a fit case for awarding capital punishment.
Mystery death of sole eyewitness
On March 17, 2011 Aruna Bheda, wife of Anil Bheda, a key witness in the case, filed a habeas corpus petition. Three months later, DNA tests on an unidentified body found by the Vashi police conclude that the victim was Bheda. On July 21, 2011, the report was presented before the Bombay High Court, which had then observed Bheda was “abducted and killed and cremated at Manor”.
In August, the investigation was handed over to the state CID by the special inspector general (crime, west zone). The probe was monitored by the high court.
On October 12, 2011, the court refused Aruna’s claim for compensation from the state against the death of her husband, as it was not her case that he had been killed by government officials or in police custody. On January 23, 2012, Aruna’s case was disposed of. Bheda’s death remains unsolved to this day.
Pradeep Sharma’s co-accused in the case weren’t as lucky to get acquitted. The convicted are Tanaji Desai, Ratnakar Kamble, Shailendra Pandey, Hitesh Solanki, Akhil Khan, Vinayak Shinde, Manoj Raj, Pradeep Suryavanshi, Sunil Solanki, Nitin Sartape, Mohammed Shaikh, Devidas Satpal, Janaradhan Bhanage, Dilip Palande, Prakash Kadam, Ganesh Harpule, Anand Patade, Pandurang Kokam, Sandeep Sardar, Suresh Shetty and Arvind Sarvankar. They all face various charges ranging from murder to criminal conspiracy, abetment, kidnapping, wrongful confinement and destruction of evidence.
While Desai, Palande and Suryavanshi stand convicted of having a common intention with the others accused to commit murder; Khan, Shinde, Raj, Solanki, Sartape, Satpal, Kadam, Harpule, Patade, Kokam, Sardar, Shetty, Kamble and Sarvankar are convicted of abetting the murder. Shaikh and Solanki escaped conviction for murder or abetment, but were held guilty for kidnapping, wrongful confinement. Solanki was on bail through the trial.