In a huge setback to the Gujarat government, court-appointed investigators Monday concluded that college girlIshrat Jahan and her three friends were murdered by the state police in a staged shootout and later passed off as militants.
The conclusion by the special investigation team (SIT) probing the 2004 killings prompted theGujarat high court to order a fresh complaint against the accused police officers for the murder under Section 302 that covers the death penalty.
The court-appointed SIT, headed by police officer RR Verma, said that Jahan, a 19-year-old girl from Mumbai, Javed Sheikh alias Pranesh Pillai, Amjad Ali Rana and Zeeshan Johar were killed earlier than the shootout date of June 15, 2004.
They were shot dead on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in a private car. Police claimed that they were linked to the Lashkar-e Taiba terror outfit and were in the city to assassinate Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.
A total of 21 policemen, including four Indian Police Service (IPS) officers - then joint commissioner PP Pande, suspended deputy inspector general DG Vanzara, then assistant commissioner GL Singhal and assistant commissioner NK Amin - were involved in the staged shootout.
The court didn't divulge details of the SIT report because it would prejudice and hamper further investigations.
The court is to decide now on which agency will conduct further probe into the case. It sought suggestions from petitioners and the state government on whether to entrust the job to the central bureau of investigation ( CBI) or the National Investigation Agency ( NIA)
"The probe agency needs to find out who played the key role in the encounter... what was the motive and what was the actual time of the death of the four people," the court said.
The SIT report gave relief to Jahan's family who called it a "victory because it washed away the terror blot police had stamped on them".
"She was innocent when she was alive, she was innocent when her body was brought to us. It is our victory," her uncle Rauf Lala told reporters, outside the court.
Her mother Shamima Kausar thanked the court but said the justice was still awaited till the culprits were punished.
"They should be hanged. They have ruined our lives. They killed my innocent daughter," a choking Kausar told reporters.
Human rights activists and lawyers also hailed the SIT conclusion and sought public apology from police and the media for tarnishing the image of the family and the young girl with a terror tag.
"They made their life hell. The family stands vindicated. They killed and tarnished the image of a young girl and her family. They should apologise publicly," lawyer-activist Vrinda Grover shouted outside the court.
In Alappuzha,Kerala, Gopinathan Pillai, the father of Pranesh Kumar Pillai alias Javed Shaikh, said he was a much relieved man with the SIT report saying the shootout was not genuine.
Gopinathan Pillai had sought an inquiry by a SIT.
"I am a much relieved person because with this none will accuse me as the father of a terrorist," Pillai told the media.
Following is the timeline of the case that has seen families of the deceased fighting for over seven years for justice.
June 15, 2004: Gujarat Police claimed they had killed Jahan and three others on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. They said the four were members of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba on a mission to kill Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
September 2009: Ahmedabad metropolitan magistrate S.P. Tamang calls the shootout fake. August 2010: Gujarat High Court asks the Supreme Court-appointed special investigation team (SIT) to take up the case.
September 2010: The high court constitutes a new SIT after the Supreme Court's SIT expressed its inability to undertake the probe.
November 2010: The Supreme Court rejects the Gujarat government's plea challenging the high court order to form the new SIT.
December 2010: Three-member SIT begins investigation in the case and starts recording statements of the witnesses, police officials involved.
Nov 21, 2011: SIT tells the Court that the shootout was staged. The court ordered that a fresh complaint needs to be filed against those involved in the fake shootout under Section 302 that covers death penalty for the accused.
Gopinathan Pillai and the mother of another person shot dead by police in the shootout had sought an inquiry by a SIT.
"I am a much relieved person because with this none will accuse me as the father of a terrorist," Pillai told the media here after hearing the news.
"For nearly seven years I have been fighting this case and have made trips to Gujarat to clear the issue that my son is not a terrorist and now I am so happy that the truth has come out," said Pillai.
Javed who embraced Islam to marry a Muslim woman was shot dead along with three others in a staged shootout with the Gujarat police in Ahmedabad.
The police then had alleged they were Lashkar-e-Taiba activists on a mission to kill Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.
College student Ishrat Jahan (19), Javed Sheikh alias Pranesh Pillai, Amjad Ali Rana and Zeeshan Johar were allegedly killed in a police shootout on June 15, 2004.
"I later came to know that my son was in the custody of the police there for four days and was put up in a farm house and interrogated. Maybe he would not have agreed to confess to the police that he is a terrorist and hence the police took him to the streets and shot him dead to make it look like an encounter," added Pillai.
"I will now have to speak to my advocate and then only speak on this," said Pillai. His son's wife and their children now live in Pune, where she works as a teacher.
The SIT Monday told the Gujarat High Court that the shootout in which college student Ishrat Jahan was killed was not genuine. The court has ordered filing of new FIR against the police officers who were involved in the 'fake' shootout case. The SIT has also informed the court that Ishrat and three others were killed before the date of encounter on June 15, 2004.
The Gujarat high court on Oct 7 asked the SIT to submit its final report by Nov 18. SIT's new chairman RR Verma had taken over the probe.