High Court Upholds Convictions of Five Police Offcers in Khalra Case
Summary of Order
On October 8, 2007, a division bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court upheld the convictions of Punjab police officers Jaspal Singh, Satnam Singh, Surinderpal Singh, Pritpal Singh, and Jasbir Singh, and acquitted Amarjit Singh of all charges regarding the murder of human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra. The High Court's order, recently obtained by Ensaaf, characterizes the Punjab police as obstructing justice and intimidating witnesses in their attempt to shield Khalra's murderers from punishment.
The attorneys for the convicted police officers challenged the prosecution's account of the events of Khalra's abduction, illegal detention, torture, and murder, arguing that the appellants were not named in the initial police investigation and it was only after a gap of seven months when the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took over the case that they were named by the witnesses to the crimes. Moreover, the appellants claimed that the prosecution witnesses were biased and not trustworthy because of their human rights activism and friendship with Khalra. The police officers' attorneys also tried to discredit Special Police Officer (SPO) Kuldip Singh, who witnessed Khalra's illegal detention, torture, and murder, by focusing on his decision to come forward two years after Khalra's murder, following the death of accused Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Ajit Singh Sandhu. The attorneys further claimed that Mrs. Khalra had offered 50,000 Rupees to Kuldip Singh for his testimony.
The prosecution responded that the lower court had disposed of all of these arguments. The prosecution recounted their version of Khalra's abduction, illegal detention, torture, and murder, as well as the intimidation of witnesses through false cases, the motive to kill Khalra, and the insufficiency of the police alibis. Rajvinder S. Bains, Mrs. Khalra's attorney, also argued for the enhancement of sentences.
The High Court dismissed the appeals of five out of six of the convicted police officers. The High Court found the testimony of the prosecution eyewitnesses to be "cogent and convincing." The High Court expressed confidence in the prosecution's witnesses as independent and trustworthy, noting the corroborating witnesses and stating in particular, "We find the statement of Kuldeep Singh PW-16 [SPO Kuldip Singh] to be truthful, convincing and inspiring confidence. He initially was under fear, but at a later stage, came out with the truth...This witness is an eye-witness to the gruesome abduction, torture, murder and disposal of the body of Jaswant Singh Khalra."
The convictions of Jaspal Singh, Satnam Singh, Surinderpal Singh, Pritpal Singh, and Jasbir Singh, were therefore upheld: "Taking the statements of these witnesses in totality, we have no hesitation in coming to a conclusion that deceased Jaswant Singh Khalra was picked up from his house at the instance of Ajit Singh Sandhu S.S.P. (since dead) by appellants Jaspal Singh, Satnam Singh, Surinderpal Singh, Jasbir Singh and Prithipal Singh. He was tortured at Police Station Jhabal and shot dead there and finally his body was disposed of by them, near the Harike Bridge, in river Sutlej."
The High Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence against Amarjit Singh, who had been convicted and sentence to life in prison by the lower court. None of the eyewitnesses named Amarjit Singh in their statements to the CBI.
(Although this was not discussed in the High Court's order, the key witness who described Amarjit Singh's role in his statement to the prosecutors turned hostile during the trial. Kikar Singh initially told the CBI that he saw Khalra in police custody at police station Kang on October 24, 1995, witnessed signs of torture on his body, and helped Khalra eat. After giving his statement to the CBI, Kikar Singh received security to protect him from the police. In an affidavit, however, Kikar Singh stated that police were pressuring him to turn against the prosecution by implicating him and his family in false cases. Two of the accused officers also raided his house, forcibly taking possession of his property in connivance with his security guard. After spending time in judicial custody, Kikar Singh eventually turned hostile to the prosecution and did not reiterate his previous statements in court.)
Enhancement of Sentences
After upholding the convictions of five officers, the High Court issued notice regarding the sentencing of the appellants. On November 18, 2005, Additional Sessions Judge Bhupinder Singh in Patiala had sentenced Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Jaspal Singh and Assistant Sub Inspector (ASI) Amarjit Singh to life imprisonment for murder, seven years imprisonment for abduction with intent to murder, two years for destruction of evidence, and five years for criminal conspiracy. The court had sentenced officers Satnam Singh, Surinderpal Singh, Pritpal Singh, and Jasbir Singh to seven years imprisonment for abduction with intent to murder and five years imprisonment for criminal conspiracy. All sentences were to run concurrently.
At the subsequent October 16, 2007 hearing, the four convicted officers who had not received life sentences claimed that they did not receive enough notice that Mrs. Khalra and her attorney, Rajvinder Singh Bains, were appealing the sentences. They further argued that the appeal was the prerogative of the state, not the petitioner. The High Court ruled that sufficient notice had been given to the officers and their attorneys to prepare for an appeal on the sentencing, and that the Court had suo moto power to enhance the sentences under Section 386(e) of the Indian Code of Criminal Procedure (meaning they had the power to review sentencing without an appeal by a party). The Court, establishing that it had the power to enhance the sentences of the police officers, was very clear in doing so, stating:
"Intention of the appellants/respondents [the police officers] was clear. Deceased was abducted so that his life is extinguished. Deceased being a human rights activist, was active in finding out the extra-judicial killings done in the Districts of Taran Taran and Amritsar. Sentence of the appellants of 7 years RI [rigorous imprisonment] is inadequate."
The sentences of police officers Satnam Singh, Surinderpal Singh, Jasbir Singh and Prithipal Singh were enhanced from seven years to life in prison.