Holds up convictions, praises star witness Kuldip Singh
CHANDIGARH: An iota of shame can be enough at times, and this was one such moment. Shaming the Indian establishment in its entirety and bringing out the true character of the working of Punjab Police during the militancy era, the Punjab and Haryana High Court on Monday upheld the conviction of Deputy Superintendent of Police Jaspal Singh and four other cops in the abduction and murder of human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra.
A Division Bench comprising Justice Mehtab Singh Gill and Justice A.N. Jindal, however, acquitted Assistant Sub-Inspector Amarjit Singh and directed that if in custody he should be released.
Along with Jaspal Singh, the cops whose conviction has been upheld are Satnam Singh, Surinder Pal Singh, Jasbir Singh and Prithipal Singh.In its 25-page order, the Bench observed, “Taking the statement of witnesses in totality, we have no hesitation in coming to the conclusion that Jaswant Singh Khalra was picked up from his house at the instance of SSP Ajit Singh Sandhu by appellants Jaspal Singh, Satnam Singh, Surinder Pal Singh, Jasbir Singh and Prithipal Singh. He was tor tured at Jhabal police station and shot dead there. Finally, his body was disposed of by them near the Harike Bridge on Sutlej river.”
Punjab police illegally detained, tortured, and murdered Jaswant Singh Khalra in October 1995 after he released findings of thousands of extrajudicial executions and secret cremations carried out by the police in Amritsar, Punjab. His investigations led India’s Supreme Court to find “a flagrant violation of human rights on a mass scale.”
The High Court Bench also observed that a number of defence witnesses had been examined. “Their testimony and veracity were gone into, but ultimately it comes out that they were untruthful witnesses, who were going out of the way to help the appellants. Advocate Gurjit Singh Kahlon went out of the way to procure a false affidavit under threat from prosecution witness Kuldeep Singh.”
The Bench observed that the motive behind the commission of the offence had been spelt out not just by one, but a number of witnesses, including retired Justice A.S. Bains. The Judges observed: “All these witnesses have stated that Khalra was a human rights activist and was looking into the deaths of innocent persons, who had been killed in false encounters and their bodies cremated in the districts of Amritsar and Tarn Taran.”
Referring to the importance of key witness Kuldeep Singh, a former Special Police Officer who was reportedly recruited in the police force by former Tarn Taran SSP Ajit Singh Sandhu, the Bench observed, “We find his statement to be truthful, convincing and inspiring confidence. He initially was under fear, but at a later stage came out with the truth. He is an eyewitness to the gruesome abduction, murder and disposal of Khalra’s body.”
The Bench concluded, “We do not find any infirmity in the judgment of the trial court, apart from the conviction of appellant ASI Amarjit Singh. The appeal of ASI Amarjit Singh is accepted and he is acquitted of the charges framed against him. If in custody, he shall be set free forthwith.”
He, along with DSP Jaspal Singh, was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Patiala Additional Sessions Judge on November 18, 2005, under Sections 302 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code after being convicted for the murder of Khalra.
The other accused were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for their involvement in the case.
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 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. Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Ajit Singh Sandhu and DSP Ashok Kumar died during the trial of the case.
Khalra’s widow Paramjit Kaur was represented by human rights advocate Rajvinder S. Bains. Mrs. Khalra had also appealed the leniency of the sentences, arguing that all who gave orders or otherwise participated in the murder should receive life sentences. The High Court will rule on the sentencing aspects later this week.
On September 6, 2006, Mrs. Khalra also filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court after the CBI refused to investigate and prosecute KPS Gill for his role in Khalra’s abduction and murder. Well known NGO, Ensaaf, worked with attorney Bains to draft the petition and apply the international law doctrine of superior responsibility. The High Court declined to hear this petition, and instead, transferred the case to another bench.
Credible reports have emerged that key convicted officials, such as DSP Jaspal Singh, have broken out of jail for select periods of time, to stay with their families.
The role of Ensaaf, a U.S.-based 501(c)(3) organization, which works to end impunity and achieve justice for mass state crimes in Punjab through documentation, is widely appreciated among all right thinking people.