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Harassed CBI officers, dead witnesses – why SC shifted murder probe of ex-Andhra minister

Transferring the case to Telangana, the top court observed Tuesday that justice should not only be done, but also ‘seen to be done’.

The Supreme Court | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

New Delhi: Alleged harassment of CBI officers, fearful key witnesses, refusal of one to record statement and the mysterious death of another – these are some of the main reasons why the Supreme Court on Tuesday transferred the investigation into the death of former Andhra Pradesh (United) minister Y.S. Vivekananda Reddy to Telangana.

“As per settled position of law, justice is not to be done but the justice is seen to have been done also,” said a bench led by Justice M.R. Shah, which ordered the transfer.

The bench mentioned in particular about the perceived U-turn by present Andhra Chief Minister Y. Jagmohan Reddy, who after coming to power, opposed a CBI inquiry into the alleged murder of his uncle.

The court took note that prior to becoming the chief minister in May 2019, Jaganmohan Reddy himself had moved a petition before the state high court, seeking a CBI probe.

But he withdrew this petition on becoming the chief minister and, instead, opposed his cousin’s plea in the high court demanding an investigation by the central agency.

Jagan’s cousin and Vivekananda Reddy’s daughter had approached the high court with a request to transfer the probe into her father’s death to the CBI. She did so after the Special Investigation Team (SIT), constituted by the state, made no progress in the investigation.

Despite the state government’s opposition, the high court directed the CBI to take over the murder probe.

Following the order, the CBI registered two cases, which also included one to probe the larger conspiracy behind the murder.

While the agency made arrests in the murder case, it could not proceed in the “larger conspiracy” matter because of its officials’ alleged harassment. An FIR was registered by the local police against the CBI, which was later stayed by the Andhra Pradesh High Court.

Following these events, the deceased minister’s wife and daughter approached the high court again, requesting the trial be shifted outside Andhra Pradesh.

This, they said, would be in the interest of justice. They sought the transfer from the CBI Court in Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh to Hyderabad or New Delhi.

The high court, however, rejected their contention on the ground that the CBI was still looking into the “larger conspiracy” angle.

The two then moved the top court.

No free & fair trial in AP, says family

Senior Advocate Siddharth Luthra, appearing for the family, pointed to several incidents which questioned the integrity of the investigation in Andhra Pradesh.

Luthra submitted that even though the “involvement” of sitting MP Y.S. Avinash Reddy had been established, he was not arrested.

Reddy played a key role in the destruction of evidence as well as spreading fake news, the petitioners contended. He had been identified as a suspect. “The state and other influential people are attempting to scuttle the investigation,” Luthra told the apex court.

The senior advocate also mentioned a frivolous complaint filed against CBI officials in order to tamper with the investigation.

The petitioners also argued that multiple witnesses and accused had been consistently intimidated, and that a key witness died under unclear circumstances.

Luthra established “reasonable apprehension” that a trial in Andhra Pradesh would not be fair or independent.

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Centre concedes, state opposes

Additional Solicitor General of India K.M. Natraj, who appeared for the CBI, said that events do indicate that witnesses were being influenced and harassed.

Natraj said two star witnesses were already under police protection and — considering false FIRs against CBI officials — it was not likely that an investigation in Andhra Pradesh would be free and fair.

Senior Advocate S. Niranjan Reddy, who appeared for Andhra Pradesh, vehemently opposed the transfer petition.

Reddy said there was no threat to the life of either the accused or witnesses. In the last three years, no one had approached legal authorities citing a threat to life, he said.

He relied on several Supreme Court judgments which have held that the mere apprehension of not getting a fair trial was not enough reason for a transfer, and that it must be “reasonable and not imaginary”.

To avoid the “hardship” of the 250 witnesses in the case, the trial must not be transferred, Andhra Pradesh said.

However, the top court overruled the state and transferred the case to the CBI Court in Hyderabad.

Justice must not only be done, but seen to be done

In its order allowing the transfer, the top court mentioned the threats received by two key witnesses, who were given police protection on the trial court’s order. This was besides the CBI officials facing harassment, allegedly at the hands of the local police.

Justice Shah’s bench further noted that one of the witnesses, who was to record his statement under Section 164 before a magistrate, did not turn up.

This witness had volunteered to record the statement, but later claimed before the media that he was being pressured by the CBI to record it. The witness later died under mysterious circumstances.

Another witness, the court learnt, had refused to record his statement because he was re-employed by the government. It appears he had volunteered to give evidence because he was under suspension.

Under such circumstances, the court held, a free and fair trial would not be possible.

“The petitioners being daughter and wife of the deceased have a fundamental right to get justice as victim and they have a legitimate expectation that criminal trial is being conducted in a fair and impartial manner and uninfluenced by any extraneous considerations,” the bench noted.

To ensure that witnesses faced less trouble, the case was transferred to neighbouring Telangana instead of New Delhi.

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