Hyderabad Encounter: Judicial panel moves SC for more time

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A judicial commission, which the Supreme Court has set up to investigate the alleged encounter killings of four rape-murder accused on the outskirts of Hyderabad in December 2019, has filed a plea seeking more time to complete the probe that it said was impacted due to Covid-19 and the lockdown announced in March-end to contain its spread.

In its application filed on July 16, the three-member commission headed by retired Supreme Court judge Justice VS Sirpurkar requested the top the court to extend the deadline by six more months. As things stand now, the deadline ends on September 3.

“Even though the work of the commission is continuing, the same could not be completed because of the prevailing pandemic situation…Therefore, the inquiry commission is constrained to apply for an extension of time of six months from the date the commission is able to function with physical hearings, spot inspections etc.,” the application said.

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde set up the panel on December 12 after two lawyers — GS Mani and Pradeep Kumar Yadav — approached the apex court seeking an independent probe into the killings of the four men accused of raping and murdering a 26-year-old veterinarian on the outskirts of Hyderabad on November 27.

The court asked the panel, also comprising former Bombay high court judge Rekha Baldota and former Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director DR Karthikeyan, to complete its probe and submit a report within six months from the date of its first sitting. The commission held its first sitting on February 3 and the deadline, as per the Supreme Court order, for submitting its report will expire on September 3.

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The commission was scheduled to meet on March 23 and 24, but the meetings were cancelled in view of the pandemic and the lockdown. India announced a nationwide lockdown on March 25, and it continued in different phases for 68 days.

The plea also pointed out that the commission has its office within the Telangana high court complex and that the high court’s regular administrative and judicial work has been put on hold due to Covid -19.

“These circumstances hindered the sittings of the commission since the three members of the commission reside in different cities and the place of enquiry is in a wholly different city,” the plea said.

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“The Government of India has extended the lockdown from time to time, severely affecting the inter-state movement. Though the lockdown restrictions have been relaxed now, the situation in Hyderabad has further deteriorated. Several persons working in the premises allocated to the commission were found to be Covid positive. There are no other premises available for the commission to hold hearings. Travel between states is still not feasible because of the increasing rates of infection,” the application said.

The commission, however, clarified that though its sittings were affected, its functioning was not completely halted. The collection of records, documents and evidence continued, the plea said.

The commission’s lawyer, K Parameshwar, declined to comment.

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Lawyer GS Mani, who approached the top court demanding an independent inquiry, said: “The lockdown due to Covid-19 was unforeseen and a reasonable extension of time can be given to the commission to complete the probe. It is up to the court to decide how much time should be given to finish the inquiry. My only concern is there should be speedy justice.”

Officials in Telangana have insisted that the four men — Mohammed Areef, Jollu Shiva, Jollu Naveen Kumar and Chintakunta Chenna Keshavulu — were killed in an exchange of fire on December 6 after they snatched weapons from policemen after they were taken to the crime scene for the reconstruction of the incident. The killings created uproar with various rights groups and members of the legal fraternity calling it a fake encounter and demanding an independent probe.

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