MUMBAI: The Bombay High Court today reprimanded the Maharashtra government for making a "deliberate" attempt to term the death of a jail inmate as accidental and said the authorities have failed to follow law which mandates magisterial inquiry in custodial deaths.
The high court asked the Mumbai Crime Branch to provide necessary documents to the magistrate concerned to facilitate immediate inquiry into the death of Manjula Shette.
The court was hearing a public interest litigation filed by city resident Pradeep Bhalekar, seeking a probe by an independent agency into the death of Shette, an inmate of the Byculla prison here.
The 45-year-old murder convict's death had sparked protests by inmates of the jail in central Mumbai last month.
"Under section 176 (1) (a) and (3) and (4) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), custodial death matters have to be referred to the concerned magistrate within 24 hours.
And all concerned documents have to be handed over to the magistrate for inquiry," said a division bench of justices R M Savant and Sadhana Jadhav.
Shette died at the JJ Hospital on June 23 and the jail authorities initially registered a case of accidental death.
The next day (June 24) an inmate lodged an FIR alleging Shette was assaulted by jail personnel. Following the complaint, six women jail staffers were arrested.
"However, in this case, the police termed it as an accidental death and tried to put an end to everything. The incident occurred on June 23. The FIR was lodged on June 24 and a letter was sent to the concerned magistrate on July 6, asking for inquiry to be carried out," Justice Savant said.
"All that the Crime Branch, which is investigating the case, is trying to do is justifying things. There has been absolutely no compliance of section 176 (1) (a), (3) and (4).
By sending a letter over a week after the incident has made the entire procedure infructuous," the high court maintained.
"We feel all this was done deliberately. We are not at all impressed with the contentions submitted by the authorities on the delay in asking a magistrate to carry out inquiry," the bench said.
The court noted that even after the magistrate asked the investigating agency to submit before it all documents pertaining to the case, the police have till date submitted only the copies of FIR and post-mortem report.
"We direct the Crime Branch to provide all necessary documents to the magistrate to facilitate the inquiry immediately. We direct the magistrate to continue with the inquiry," the court said and posted the matter for further hearing on August 21.
The high court observed the purpose of asking a magistrate to conduct an inquiry in custodial deaths is to ensure the entire process is independent and the actual cause of the death is ascertained.
"The law also mandates for the magistrate to remain present during inquest panchnama of the body and for the postmortem to be video-graphed and the footage to be submitted to the magistrate," the bench observed.