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NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court today allowed three college students, who are friends of a key accused in the sensational Kathua gang rape and murder case and have been made witnesses, to be accompanied by their relatives during their further questioning by the Jammu and Kashmir Police.
The top court, which rejected the plea for videography in the quizzing of the three witnesses by the Crime Branch, asked the police to carry out the probe in "fair manner".
"We hope and trust the state shall carry investigation in a most fair manner without pressurising the witnesses.
"A relative of each of the witnesses shall be allowed to accompany him, but the said relative shall not enter the investigation room.
However, he shall remain at a reasonably visible distance," a bench, comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud, said.
The bench made it clear that it should not "remotely be inferred (from its order) that there is any kind of harassment by the investigating agency".
The court was hearing the matter related to the gangrape and murder of an eight-year old girl, belonging to a minority nomadic community, who had disappeared from near her home in a village close to Kathua in the Jammu region on January 10.
Her body was found in the same area a week later.
Senior advocate P S Patwalia and lawyer Shoeb Alam, appearing for the Jammu and Kashmir government, submitted the fresh status report and said these witnesses were required to be further examined as it had appeared that they may have misled the investigation.
Patwalia said till recently, neither of the students -- Sahil Sharma, Sachin Sharma and Neeraj Sharma -- had alleged any kind of harassment and torture at the hands of police and opposed the presence of any lawyer or relative during further recording of their statements.
"Is there no difference between recording of statement of a witness and interrogation of an accused? You (state) yourself say that they are witnesses and their statements have already been recorded," the bench asked when the state's counsel persistently objected to the students' plea that they should be allowed to be accompanied by either a relative or lawyers during further examination.
The counsel for the state urged the court to refer to the status report and said some incriminating materials have surfaced against these students that they have tried to mislead the probe.
At the outset, senior advocate Arvind Datar and lawyer Ravi Sharma, appearing for the students aged between 19 to 20 years, said they have been harassed and coerced by the police and summoned to re-record their statements.
They have already recorded their statements with the police and the judicial magistrate and were now served with fresh summons by the investigators, Datar said, adding they needed protection as their educational career has been ruined.
The bench asked the state government to file an affidavit and posted the matter for further hearing in the first week of July.
Earlier, the court had allowed the Jammu and Kashmir government to file a status report in gangrape and murder case of an eight-year-old girl after it was alleged that the three college friends of accused Vishal Jangotra might have misled the probe.
The students have alleged that they were tortured and threatened by the Crime Branch of the Jammu and Kashmir Police during the probe and be provided protection by a central agency.
The Jammu-based students, who are pursuing B.
Sc in Agriculture at a college in Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, are classmates of Jangotra, the plea said.
The students alleged that they were "coerced to make statements contrary to the facts that Jangotra was with them at Muzzafarnagar from January 7 to February 10.
During that period, he, along with the petitioners, attended examinations and practical papers".
"The petitioners were subjected to the physical and mental torture from March 19 to March 31 by the respondents (state police officers)," the plea said.
The petitioners also sought Rs 50 lakh each as compensation for the "physical and mental agony and loss of study and future prospects".
The apex court had transferred the trial in the Kathua gangrape and murder case from Jammu and Kashmir to Pathankot in Punjab, but had refrained from handing over the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation, saying there was no need as the investigation had been conducted and the charge sheet filed.
The top court, which ordered a day-to-day "in-camera" trial in the case, had said there was a need to shift the trial outside the state as "fear and fair trial" were contradictory and "cannot be allowed to co-exist."
The state police has filed the main charge sheet against seven persons and a separate charge sheet against a juvenile in a court in Kathua district.