Attappadi Madhu lynching case verdict a textbook for future reference

  • There were 127 witnesses. One by one, 24 turned hostile and the police hit a trail less travelled to ensure justice for the mentally unsound tribal youth.
Palakkad District Police Chief R Vishwanath and Mannarkkad Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Special Court Public Prosecutor P Jayan congratulate each other after the accused in the Madhu lynching case were found guilty.

Lady Justice, be proud. Madhu, a tribal youth who was lynched by an angry mob on February 22, 2018, has received justice — finally!

The quantum of punishment has become a milestone in the history of the judiciary. The helpless expression on a bound Madhu had once shocked the collective conscience of Malayalis. The same expression has now become a symbol of the hoodwinked Lady Justice Swiss Renaissance sculptor Hans Geieng immortalised in 1543.

The sentencing — seven years rigorous imprisonment for 13 convicts and three months for the 16th accused Muneer — was also a slap in the face of those witnesses who turned hostile during the trial at the Mannarkkad Special Court trying cases registered under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Tribal youth Madhu of Attappadi — a region tucked away in the shadows in the Malayali society's backyard — got justice after five years. A boisterous mob had then dragged him out of his cave in the forests, tied him up, and paraded him, before fatally assaulting the youngster.

Multiple interventions from various corners helped Madhu even as witnesses kept turning hostile, shocking the judiciary in particular, and society in general. The police pulled up their socks and presented evidence of the accused trying to influence the witnesses.

Judge KM Ratheesh Kumar was convinced. "The accused persons and witnesses engaging in discussions in hotel rooms is not about Indo-Pak relations," the court observed.

One of the passages referred to by the judge with regard to witnesses turning hostile.

For the police and judiciary, the Madhu lynching case is a textbook, which has to be studiously followed.

Palakkad district police chief R Vishwanath, who led the investigation into the brutal murder, spoke to Manorama Online Premium.

Several attempts have been made to sabotage the case. Still, Madhu got justice when the court pronounced the quantum of the sentence on April 5. Could you explain the bids made to torpedo the case?

The verdict is a milestone in the history of the judiciary, a warning against lynching by mobs. No one has the right to take the law into his or her hands. Whatever the reasons may be, no one has the right to attack another human being. The judgment is also a warning against organised attempts at sabotaging a case. The verdict has also cautioned witnesses from turning hostile.

It has sent out a message that those turning hostile would not be spared. Society trusts the witness. The case also witnessed the lower court cancelling the bail granted by the high court. The Forest and Wildlife Department terminated the services of its watchers who had committed perjury. The trial commenced and the court carried out its duty based on strong digital evidence.

The case also witnessed the court taking novel steps to deliver justice. Could you explain them and their results?

After noticing attempts to make witnesses turn hostile the special court issued warnings against such bids several times. Still, there were such attempts and the police took them to the notice of the court. The high court granted bail to the accused on the strict condition that they should not establish contact with the witnesses. Later, several witnesses turned hostile and the police invoked the Witness Protection Act.

The trial court repealed the high court-granted bail to the accused after the witness protection cell convinced the court of the attempts being made to influence the witnesses. Though the accused got a stay on the trial court's order cancelling the bail, the high court did not find fault with the special court. The bails were cancelled after four years.

Society as a whole became concerned after the witnesses, one by one, turned hostile. It felt the case would be sabotaged. How did the case, which at one point, looked like spinning out of the hands of the police and prosecution, come back on track? What was the turning point?

The court understood what was happening when one of the witnesses could not identify himself in the footage screened in the court. It also made the police alert. Instances of attempts made to influence witnesses were not new. The police launched a probe into the efforts made to make witnesses turn hostile. The police submitted evidence for the telephonic conversations between the accused and the witnesses the very next day.

The 14 accused in Madhu's murder case.

The evidence was gathered with the help of the mobile phone service provider. CCTV footage of the accused with the witnesses was also presented to the court. The forest department watchers who committed perjury were terminated from service without any delay. The court took a strong stand. Even magistrates were summoned to the court to collect evidence. The court itself made direct queries.

What is the witness protection scheme? Did it achieve the desired result?

The police approached the District Sessions Court judge for providing protection to witnesses and also to monitor them. The Supreme Court has allowed the witness protection scheme in 2018. The police employed it. A witness protection scheme was initiated with the District Sessions Court judge as its chairperson, the government pleader as member secretary and the district superintendent of police as its member. The constitution of the witness protection cell under Agali Deputy Superintendent of Police PN Muraleedharan was announced through an order last year.

The Cell comprised Agali Circle Inspector K Salim, Puthur Sub-inspector S Jayaprasad, Grade Sub-inspector Sabu Joseph, Senior Civil Police Officer KP Beena and Civil Police Officer attached to the Cyber Cell P Vinu. Its intervention and investigations were fruitful. After forming the Cell, the police protected and monitored the witnesses until the trial concluded.

Witnesses turning hostile is a headache. How did you prevent it?

The trial process and the witnesses' immediate environment were analysed once a week. Mysterious moves to influence the witnesses were nipped in the bud. This mechanism helped the prosecutor also. The committee monitored the witnesses who were to attend court the next day. It consulted judicial officers on further actions that had to be initiated. Besides the Cell, a team of select police officers was also tasked with surveilling the witnesses. Witnesses from the tribal community were under the lens of officers from the same community.

Madhu was captured from a cave inside a forest and paraded to Mukkali, a small junction in Attappady, by a group of people who accused him of frequently stealing from the shops in the area. File photo: Manorama

The Director General of Police allotted a special fund for monitoring witnesses. Those witnesses under serious threat were provided with police escorts to attend the court. The scheme has specific guidelines for ensuring the safety of witnesses. It also allows for relocating, providing financial assistance and livelihood to those witnesses under serious threat.

Both the accused and witnesses belonged to the same place. Was it possible to avoid their interaction?

Twenty-four witnesses turning hostile exposed the helplessness of the tribespeople. A tribal chieftain, who had turned hostile, later went by his conscience and deposed in favour of Madhu. The witness who could not identify himself in the footage screened was ordered to undergo an eye examination. The doctor who tested him was also examined in court. It became a talking point. The court also made crucial interventions.

The Cell found out that a politician in Attappadi was the middleman in influencing the witness. It was also found that the witnesses were influenced by offering money, liquor and jobs. While monitoring the mobile phones of the accused men, it was revealed that six of them had contacted one person.

Weren't concerted efforts made to sabotage the case as well as to change the statements of witnesses?

A decision was made against holding an in-camera trial, and also to strictly implement certain steps. The first one was to avoid the accused and witnesses from meeting each other since they are all from the same area. The witnesses were provided vehicles and police protection to attend the court proceedings.

It was also ensured that they were not influenced in any manner. The Witness Protection Cell sent monthly reports to the district committee. Special attention was given to four weak but crucial witnesses. Constant interaction with them was important.

Besides the statements of witnesses, digital evidence was presented before the court. Will they stand legal scrutiny?

The digital evidence was of the acts of the mob that had captured Madhu. They are strong. The mob believed that it had done some chivalrous act, and tried to show it to others. They clicked selfies and recorded videos.

The portion of the judgment in which the court observed that electronic evidence was crucial in the Madhu murder case.

They made Madhu carry the 'booty' found in his cave. The investigators collected all such evidence. The forensic wing also worked effectively. The court has appreciated the forensic wing's expertise in the judgment.

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