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14 Years After RTI Activist Satish Shetty's Murder, a Small Win in Family's Fight for Justice

The Supreme Court directed the Bombay high court to take a relook at the writ petition filed by Shetty’s younger brother, Sandeep, seeking an impartial investigation.
Slain RTI activist Satish Shetty.

Mumbai: Nearly 14 years since Satish Shetty, a Pune-based RTI activist seeking information about a road project in Maharashtra, was brutally killed, his family sees some hope for justice. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court directed the Bombay high court to take a relook at the writ petition filed by Shetty’s younger brother, Sandeep, seeking an impartial investigation. The apex court took close to four years to set aside the Bombay high court order and send the case back to the court for its reconsideration.

On January 13, 2010, when Shetty was in the process of unearthing what he believed was a multi-crore land grab scam, he was stabbed to death. Ever since, Sandeep has made it his life’s mission to doggedly follow the case – first with the local police, and then with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). When both agencies failed him, he continued petitioning the courts – right from the trial court to the Bombay high court and finally the apex court.

What was Sandeep’s petition before the Supreme Court all about? It was on the high court’s “strange decision” to allow the murder accused to intervene in his writ petition, something that is legally untenable. Sandeep’s writ petition was filed challenging the session’s court’s decision to accept a closure report filed by the CBI on April 13, 2018, claiming that, “no further prosecutable evidence emerged against any person” in the murder case.

Sandeep had named Virendra Mhaiskar, chairman and managing director, Ideal Road Builder (IRB), as one of the prime accused in the case. The then division bench of the Bombay high court comprising Justice Ranjit More and Justice Bharati Dangre had, however, allowed Mhaiskar to intervene in the matter, though he was not even made a party. Against this order, Sandeep filed a Special Leave Petition (SLP) before the Supreme Court. Strangely the CBI, which was made a party in the petition, had not appeared before the high court. Sandeep points out that each time he has approached the court, instead of the CBI, it was Mhaiskar who would intervene.

The division bench of the Supreme Court judges Justices Abhay Oka and Panjak Mittal observed: “Much is said by the learned senior counsel appearing for the appellant about the manner in which the Writ Petitions were taken up and decided by the High Court.” The bench further directed the high court to “reconsider the Writ Petitions”. “Accordingly, we set aside the impugned order dated 18th March, 2019 in Writ Petition Nos.639 of 2019 and 3191 of 2016 and restore the said Writ Petitions for hearing before the High Court,” the apex court order stated.

Sandeep’s SLP was filed through senior advocate Dushyant Dave and advocate Aparna Bhat. The petition, he says, was settled within just four hearings. “But it took over four years for these four hearings,” he says, pointing at the excruciatingly slow legal process.

Taking the overall delay into account, the Supreme Court observed: “Considering the nature of the controversy and the fact that the Writ Petitions were of 2019 and 2016 respectively, we are sure that the High Court will give necessary priority to the hearing of the Writ Petitions.”

The case background

Satish Shetty was killed while he was in the process of investigating a land scam that allegedly involved IRB officials. On October 15, 2009, he filed a cheating case at the Lonavala police station against 13 persons. Of them, two were IRB representatives. Shetty alleged that IRB representatives had used forged documents to deceitfully grab over 85 hectares of state-owned land.

As Shetty continued his activism, he received threats to his life. He even had complained to the Lonavala police about this. The police failed to provide him with security and within days, he was stabbed to death, close to his house in Talegaon Dhabade.

The two closure reports

Soon after Satish Shetty’s death, Sandeep filed a case at the local police station naming Mhaiskar and a few other IRB representatives. However, only five persons – Vijay Dnayeshawar Dabhade, Pramod Dattatray Waghmare, Navnath Maruti Shelar, Dongra alias Dongarya Hanumanth Rathod and Shyam Ramchandra Dabhade – were arrested.

The state police filed a chargesheet against the five arrested persons. Sandeep had suspected a role of a larger network and eventually sought a CBI inquiry in the matter. The state transferred the case to the CBI in April 2010.

Other than Mhaiskar, an investigation was also sought against IRB lawyer Ajit Kulkarni, IRB liaison officer Jayant Dangre and former deputy superintendent of police Dilip Shinde. Both the local police and the CBI never proceeded against them.

For the initial one year, the CBI dodged the matter and did not investigate the actual allegation made by Sandeep. It was only after the Bombay high court’s scathing remarks that the CBI was compelled to conduct a proper investigation.

The Bombay high court had then observed:

“Before concluding, it will be necessary to note down that for reasons best known to the local police, they never investigated the case from the angle of suspicion against Mhaiskar, the promoter of IRB infrastructure… even though the name was specifically mentioned in the FIR… After the investigation was handed over to the CBI, it was expected the CBI would investigate the case thoroughly from all the angles. But it appears, that for the last eight months, the CBI has not even touched any of the suspects of the murder for the reasons best known to the investigation officer.

“…Maybe because all of those parties appear to be very powerful financially and otherwise.”

Besides the CBI case, the local Lonavala police was still handling the cheating and forgery case that Shetty had filed with them before he was murdered. At the end of 2011, the Lonavala police filed a “C Summary” case claiming that it was difficult to ascertain if the cheating and forgery had really taken place. The Wadgaon Maval magistrate court accepted this ‘closure’ report on December 27, 2011 without any objection.

After the high court’s rap, the CBI continued with the investigation. IRB Infra and its associate companies were raided by the agency. The CBI also moved the Bombay high court in appeal against the local police’s closure report, claiming, “There was enough material available to chargesheet the accused persons and the filing of “C” summary was bad in law.” The CBI asked that the land grab case be transferred to them as they had evidence that linked Shetty’s exposé of the land-grabbing case to his death.

On August 8, 2014, the land grab case too was handed over to the CBI. Strangely, within three days, the CBI filed a closure report in the murder case for “lack of sufficient evidence”.

The investigation was handled by one officer Sushil Pratap Singh. He, in the investigation, had identified a “motive”, and was also able to unearth “evidence of abetment, bribes offered, and threats made to the deceased”. In the update given to the high court then, he was able to attribute roles to each person named as accused in the FIR. Yet, in the most surprising and incomprehensible manner, the officer had later sought closure of the murder case.

Singh had later called up Sandeep and said that the closure report was filed under tremendous pressure. Sandeep had recorded this conversation and in 2019, he had shared the recording with The Wire.

This sudden u-turn raised suspicion and the high court refused to accept the CBI’s findings. The court had compelled the CBI to go on with the investigation. For three years, the CBI continued. A few more places were “raided” and statements recorded.

On April 13, 2018, however, the CBI appeared before a magistrate court once again, this time to “intimate” it about a closure report. No chargesheet or final report was submitted; the court was simply intimated. Sandeep, in his petition, challenged this process of intimation since it is not defined under the law.

Now with the Supreme Court’s order, Sandeep hopes that the Bombay high court will once again look into his original demand of “impartial investigation” into his brother’s killings, 14 years ago.


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