Bengaluru: Four years, 18 accused, four charge sheets running into more than 10,000 pages and 17 arrests later, trial in journalist Gauri Lankesh’s murder case is yet to begin. Lankesh was assassinated outside her Bengaluru residence on 5 September, 2017. Two elements of the case continue to evade the Special Investigation Team (SIT) probing the murder, the actual murder weapon and one of the 18 accused in the case, Nihal alias Dada, who is currently absconding, SIT sources told ThePrint.
Special Public Prosecutor in the case, S. Balan, told ThePrint that it has been over two years since he filed draft charges before the Principal Judge’s Bench of the Bengaluru Sessions Court, but trial is yet to begin. Multiple petitions have been filed in the trial court by the accused, seeking bail, discharge and quashing of charges, among others, a move which the prosecution termed as a delaying tactic. According to the prosecution, between 4 September, 2018, and 5 June, 2021, 14 petitions have been filed by the accused in the Karnataka High Court alone of which five petitions have been dismissed, one has been partially allowed while the rest have been adjourned.
Now, the fate of the Special Investigation Team’s (SIT) probe and the whole of the prosecution’s case depends on the Supreme Court. On 8 September, the apex court is set to hear a petition filed by Lankesh’s sister, Kavitha, challenging a Karnataka High Court decision to quash charges filed under the Karnataka Control of Organised Crimes Act (KCOCA), against one of the accused, Mohan Nayak. According to sources in the SIT, the charge sheet accuses Nayak of sheltering the other accused, including Parashuram Waghmore, who is accused of shooting the former journalist.
While KCOCA has been invoked against all accused in the case, a single-judge bench of the Karnataka High Court had on 22 April quashed KCOCA charges against Nayak, stating that the accused was not involved in continuing unlawful activities, as defined under the Act.
The KCOCA, which received the approval of the President on 22 December, 2001, was enacted to make special provisions for prevention and control of, and for coping with, criminal activity by organised crime syndicates or gangs.
Officers from the SIT told ThePrint that provisions of the Act are applicable in the Lankesh case. According to sources in the SIT, a diary that the SIT recovered from Amol Kale, the alleged mastermind behind the assassination, contained names of nine more targets in Karnataka and 26 in other states, along with coded inscriptions of the team members, logistics, resources etc. SIT sources said that details from the diary have also been mentioned in the charge sheet, to define the role of each accused in the case.
A senior SIT officer told The Print that excluding the weapon, the cost of assassinating Lankesh was about Rs 30,000. This included the cost of training the accused, accommodation and logistics for the accused, arranged by Kale, the officer said.
“The accused had been trained in meditation, concentration to such an extent that Waghmore in his confession said he meditated all along the bike ride before arriving at Gauri’s residence to keep himself calm before shooting her. Even during the investigation, they would go into meditation and we had to wait for hours before restarting,” said the officer mentioned above.
Why is KCOCA key in the case?
The apex court’s decision on Kavitha Lankesh’s petition is likely to impact not just her sister’s case, but all cases where KCOCA and its equivalent in Maharashtra, MCOCA, have been invoked, the prosecution told ThePrint. Key cases where the controversial COCA has been invoked in recent times include that of gangster Ravi Poojari, who had been evading arrest in multiple cases, including a 2016 shooting incident. He was finally caught in 2019 and charged under COCA in the shootout case.
“KCOCA is extremely crucial in Gauri’s case. There are special enactments under the act, like confessions before investigating officer being admissible in court, which are crucial in proving and introducing evidence in court,” said M.N. Anucheth, Lead Investigation Officer of the SIT formed to probe the case.
While investigating the Gauri Lankesh case, the SIT was also able to crack scholar M.M. Kalburgi’s assassination and a murder bid on writer K.S. Bhagwan. While Kalburgi was shot dead in front of his house in Dharwad on 20 August, 2015, the SIT stumbled upon a conspiracy to assassinate Bhagwan, which led to the arrest of Amol Kale, the alleged mastermind behind Lankesh’s murder.
According to the chief investigation officer of the SIT, while the K.S. Bhagwan case is in trial stage, charges are still being filed in the M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh cases.
Since there is ocular evidence (eyewitnesses) in the M.M. Kalburgi case, the prosecution’s case is said to be watertight. In the case of Gauri Lanesh, however, the SIT has had to depend heavily on circumstantial evidence, gait analysis, forensic ballistics report, CCTV footages etc, apart from diaries and confessions procured from the accused, said prosecution advocates.
Advocate N.P. Amrutesh, who is representing eight of the accused in Lankesh’s case, including Amol Kale, told ThePrint that invoking KCOCA in the case was against “the principles of natural justice” since it denies defense counsels information about the probe. “Because KCOCA has been invoked in the case, police are refusing to give us even the list of witnesses. They are trying to blindfold us. KCOCA can only be invoked against those chargesheeted more than once earlier,” he said. “Mohan Nayak’s is a test case for us. If the Supreme Court upholds the High Court’s judgement then we will petition the court to quash KCOCA against all accused,” Amrutesh said.
Within days of the Karnataka HC order quashing KCOCA charges against Nayak in April, Kavitha had filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging it. The Karnataka government too filed a Supreme Court petition against the HC order on 26 July.
“The chargesheet is meticulous and the SIT has unearthed links between Gauri’s murder and those of (Govind) Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and (Narendra) Dabolkar. If KCOCA charges are quashed it will adversely impact all these cases. Worse, this will make way for a breeding ground of newcomers turning murderers because KCOCA can’t be invoked in the first offence. An organised crime syndicate murdered Gauri, not an individual. I only hope for the trial to begin soon,” Kavitha Lankesh told The Print.
Rationalist Narendra Dhbolkar was shot dead on 20 August, 2013, while writer and Communist Party of India member Govind Pansare was assassinated on 20 February, 2015.
Special court to speed up process
“I have submitted six memos in three years asking for trial to begin. Even the draft charges were submitted two years ago and all we need is for the court to frame charges and begin the trial,” Special Public Prosecutor in the case, S. Balan, told ThePrint.
H.S. Chandramouli, the special public prosecutor in the High Court has been fighting appeals filed by the defence. “The government can constitute a special court to expedite the case. It has done so in many case before,” said a prosecution lawyer.
ThePrint tried to reach Karnataka’s minister for Law and Parliamentary Affair J.C. Madhuswamy over phonE on the government’s stand on constituting a special court in the case, but there was no response till the time of publication of this report.
While setting up a special court is sure to speed up the process, it comes at a price. “Governments have the prerogative to constitute special courts in cases that are of public interest or if the result of the case has bearing on other cases. But that also means that other cases get delayed. Cases have to be taken out of turn only on merit basis,” Justice Santhosh Hegde, former Lokayukta of Karnataka and Supreme Court Judge, told ThePrint.
Between 2018 and 2020 the SIT has arrested 17 of the 18 accused in the Gauri Lankesh assassination case – Amol Kale, Parashuram Waghmore, Amit Baddi, Suresh Kumar, Ganesh Miskin, Rajesh Bangera, Amit Degwekar, Mohan Nayak, K.T. Naveen Kumar, Sujeeth Kumar, Manohar Edave, Bharth Kurne, Sharad Kalaskar, Shrikanth Pangarkar, Sudhanva Gondalekar, Rishikesh Dewerkar, Nihal alias Dada, Vasudev Suryavamshi. SIT sources alleged that according to the charge sheet all of them are associated with various rightwing extremist organisations.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)