Madras High Court: A Division Bench of P.N. Prakash and B. Pugalendhi, JJ. had directed the Judicial Magistrate (I), Kovilpatti, to go to Sathankulam for conducting enquiry into the custodial deaths of a father-son duo. The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court has taken suo motu cognizance of the act.
Jayaraj and his son Bennicks were taken into custody by the police and brought to Sathankulam Police Station, Tuticorin, for allegedly they had not closed their mobile shop even after the permitted time and thereby violated general prohibitory orders passed during the COVID-19 lockdown period. In the status report filed by the Superintendent of Police, Tuticorin, it has been further reported that when the Beat Police Officer asked the now deceased prisoners to close the shop, they abused the police constables, prevented them from discharging their official duty and threatened them with dire consequences. This status report was filed by the SP, Tuticorin, pursuant to the directions of the High Court in its earlier order dated 24th June 2020.
The said incident happened on 19th June. The deceased father-son were brought to the police station the same night. They were produced before the Judicial Magistrate, Santhankulam, the next day, i.e. 20th June, and remanded to custody at the Sub-Jail, Kovilpatti. On 22nd June, Bennicks was admitted to the Government Hospital, Kovilpatti, at 7:45 p.m., and Jeyaraj at 10:30 p.m. While undergoing treatment, Bennicks expired on the night of 22nd June at 9 p.m. and Jeyaraj expired in the morning of 23rd June at 5:40 a.m. Two FIRs into the said incident have been registered at the Kovilpatti East Police Station. On this account, the Judicial Magistrate (I), Kovilpatti, assumed charge to conduct enquiry under Section 176(1)(1-A) CrPC. As directed by the High Court in its previous order, the post-mortem was done at the Government Hospital, Tirunelveli, by a panel of three experts in the presence of the Judicial Magistrate (I), Kovilpatti. The post-mortem was also videographed.
Having regard to the said facts, the Court noted that in this charged and tensed atmosphere, the Judicial Magistrate (I), Kovilpatti, would not have been in a position to examine the family members of the deceased as they would have been under untold stress. Sathankulam is about 100 kms from Kovilpatti. Therefore, to serve the interests of justice, the following directions were issued:
(a) The Judicial Magistrate (I), Kovilpatti, may go to Sathankulam for conducting the enquiry, so that the witnesses will be in a position to appear before him and their statements can be recorded.
(b) The Judicial Magistrate is also at liberty to visit the family members of the deceased for the purpose of recording the statements of the womenfolk, who may not be in a position to come out, as they will be in the period of mourning.
(c) The Judicial Magistrate may also conduct local inspection under Section 310 CrPC, visit the Sathankulam Police Station and take photocopies of all the records relating to Sathankulam PS Cr. No. 312 of 2020, including the Case Diary in Sathankulam PS Cr. No. 312 of 2020 and the Station General Diary. He may also record the statements of the policemen in the Sathankulam Police Station itself, so that he may get an idea as to where all the deceased were kept during their detention.
(d) The Judicial Magistrate shall also take a photocopy of the case diary in Sathankulam PS Cr. No. 312 of 2020 and the original case diary shall be handed over to the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Tuticorin, for safe custody.
(e) The Judicial Magistrate may also visit the place of occurrence in Cr. No. 312 of 2020 for better appreciation of the facts and may also take videographs of the place of occurrence wherever he finds it necessary.
(f) The Judicial Magistrate may use the Sathankulam Court premises as camp office for conducting the enquiry and the staff members of the Sathankulam Court premises shall be at his disposal, till the enquiry is completed.
(g) The Judicial Magistrate may visit the Sub-Jail, Kovilpatti, and take photocopies of all the records, including the admission register and other medical records, duly attested by the Superintendent of the Sub-Jail.
(h) The Judicial Magistrate shall also collect the CCTV footages wherever they are available and have them preserved.
(i) The Tuticorin district administration shall provide all necessary facilities and protection to the Judicial Magistrate thereby enabling him to discharge his functions.
The aforesaid directions issued by the Court are primarily in the nature of guidance to the Magistrate for him to follow. The Court made it clear that by issuing the aforesaid slew of directions, it is not interfering with the manner in which the Judicial Magistrate should conduct the enquiry and the Court left it open to his discretion to understand the ground reality and act accordingly.
The Court said that it earnestly hope and trust that the family members of the deceased, local Bar, fourth estate, public, political parties and NGOs would provide a congenial atmosphere for the Magistrate to conduct the enquiry, so that ultimately, justice is done to the parties.
Until further orders, two cases filed pursuant to the FIRs in the death of Jeyaraj and Bennicks will be dealt with by the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Kovilpatti Range.
The Principal District Judge, Tuticorin, is also personally monitoring the case and is briefing the High Court from time to time in this regard.
Pursuant to the observation made by the Court in the earlier order dated 24th June 2020, the Director General of Police, Chennai-4, has issued a circular memorandum dated 25th June 2020, setting out the Standard Operating Procedure for dealing with persons who violate the lockdown regulations. The High Court took on record the said Circular Memorandum and placed on record our appreciation to the Director General of Police for the efforts taken in this regard. However, it was made clear that the Standard Operating Procedure should not remain on paper alone, but, should be implemented in spirit as well. In this regard, it was suggested that the Police Department engage the services of counsellors and NGOs for providing counselling to the police personnel and their family members during this testing period.
The matter is posted for 30th June 2020. [High Court of Madras v. State of T.N., Suo Motu WP (MD) No. 7042 of 2020, dated 26-6-2020]