Delhi riots: Cops blow cover of own secret witnesses

New Delhi: A two-page document listing names and addresses of at least 15 protected witnesses, who have given evidence against those arrested for alleged conspiracy in February’s Delhi riots cases, have inadvertently been included in the police’s charge sheet filed in a city court last month.

HT has seen the document but is not revealing the names of the witnesses to protect their identity. The document contains the names and address of protected witness otherwise referred to only by their pseudonyms such as Alpha, Beta, Hector, Delta, Echo, Mike, and others. News of the document was first reported by The Wire on Wednesday.

Pramod Kuswah, the special cell’s deputy commissioner of police who prepared and submitted the charge sheet, did not respond to repeated calls and text messages from HT. Kuswah is heading the investigation behind the alleged conspiracy. Delhi Police released a statement on Wednesday evening that a court-related document containing the identities of the witnesses was “inadvertently included” and that they are “taking steps for the security and safety of the witnesses”.

Other than in this two-page document, these protected witnesses in the 17,000-page charge sheet have been referred to by their pseudonyms in their statements before police and court. Police have claimed that these protected witnesses were insiders/eyewitnesses who saw some of the accused persons such as Pinjra Tod activists Natasha Narwal and Devanagana Kalita, and former AAP councillor Tahir Hussain mobilising the rioters. The accused have denied any wrongdoing. Police had told the court that there was a threat to the witnesses’ life, hence their identities were protected.

Though the charge sheet is not a public statement, its copies are with the lawyers of the arrested persons since September 21. The copies are also with journalists, and the contents were widely circulated on social media.

The statements were recorded before different judges between March and August, and are admissible evidence during trial. These witnesses appear to hold the key to the police’s narrative that the riots were planned at anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protest sites. The accused have maintained that there was no conspiracy.

Experts say the disclosure of the identities of such protected witnesses would not only harm the outcome of the cases but also pose a threat to their lives.

Former top of Uttar Pradesh police, Vikram Singh who was the state’s director general of police between 2007 and 2008, said: “I would not call this inadvertent error. This is the callousness by one of the officers, who was involved in preparing the charge sheet. Too many cooks spoil the broth. When there are too many officers as part of the probe or preparing a document, the weakest one ends up making such a costly mistake. I hope that Delhi Police have taken adequate steps and ensured the protection of those people because they are a part of an important investigation. Their security is police’s responsibility now. If anything untoward happens to them, it will be a blot on Delhi Police.”

Singh said the police must quickly find a legal recourse and get the witnesses examined. “God forbid, even if anything happens to them or they turn hostile, police must quickly find a way to ensure that the case is not affected. Police must fix accountability and find the officer who fumbled and made this mistake.”

Advocate Mehmood Pracha, representing Gulfisha Khatoon (one of the arrested persons) in the riot cases, said this was a “Himalayan blunder” by the police even as he disapproved the statements made by those protected witnesses. “First, let me say that this is a biased investigation and the witnesses are fake. They have misused the use of protected witnesses, which will not pass muster during trial. The witnesses will be cross-examined during trial. Secondly, it is a lapse on their part to reveal the names of their so called protected witnesses,” he said.

Delhi Police in their statement said, “During the course of investigation, it was deemed necessary that the identities of some witnesses should not be disclosed in the public domain. However, a court-related document containing the identities of some of these witnesses has been inadvertently included in the copies of the charge sheet provided to the accused persons as part of compliance of judicial orders. Since the witnesses are court-protected, their identities should not be published. Media is requested to cooperate in this matter. Steps are being taken to ensure the safety and security of these witnesses and to address all concerns in this regard.”

At least 53 persons died while 400 others were injured in the 2020 Delhi riots. The clashes started when groups of people — one supporting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and another opposing it — clashed near the Jafrabad metro station on the evening of February 23. It snowballed into large-scale Hindu-Muslims clashes in parts of north east Delhi between February 23 and 27. Delhi police have arrested at least 21 persons for conspiring to orchestrate the riots. The arrested persons include prominent faces of the anti-CAA protests such as former JNU student leader Umar Khalid, student activists Sharjeel Imam, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Safoora Zargar. They have all denied any role in inciting the riots.

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