The Gujarat High Court on Friday relieved Satyapal Singh as chief of Special Investigation Team probing the Ishrat Jahan encounter case and appointed senior Indian Police Service officer J V Ramudu as his successor.
Ramudu, a 1981-batch officer of Andhra Pradesh cadre, will be the third IPS officer to head the HC-appointed Special Investigating Team probing the 2004 encounter of Ishrat, a Mumbai teenager, and three others near here allegedly by Ahmedabad Crime Branch.
A division bench of justices Jayant Patel and Abhilasha Kumari which is hearing the matter also expressed concern over the retraction of statements by some of the witnesses in the case.
During the last hearing, Singh, of Maharashtra cadre, had requested the court to relieve him of his duties. Later, the high court had asked the Centre to give its opinion on Singh's application seeking exemption from the responsibility citing certain reasons.
The Centre on Friday told the court that Singh, named SIT head in May, may be freed of his responsibilities. It had suggested names of three IPS officers -- Ramudu, Rajesh Ranjan of Bihar cadre and R C Arora of Madhya Pradesh cadre -- and said one of them may he named as SIT head.
The court had asked the Centre to get the consent of the officers concerned and their respective state governments before suggesting their names. Assistant Solicitor General Pankaj Champanari informed the court that the consent of Ramudu and the state where he is serving was taken and he is ready to take up the job.
Based on the statement of the Centre's representative, the court relived Singh and appointed Ramudu.
The court directed the Gujarat government to issue notification on Ramudu's appointment before July 19 and ordered him to join immediately. Further hearing on the matter has been scheduled for August 5.
Meanwhile, during the hearing, the SIT produced a progress report of the investigations in the encounter case. After going through the report, the court expressed concern over retraction of statements by some of the witnesses.
The court said it is a "big concern" as the investigations were at a very crucial stage.
Ishrat, 19, and three others -- Javed Sheikh alias Pranesh Pillai, Amjad Ali Rana and Zeeshan Johar -- were allegedly killed in a police encounter on June 15, 2004.
After the encounter, Crime Branch had claimed that the deceased were Lashkar-e-Tayiba terrorists who had come to kill Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
The probe in the case is being supervised by the high court which had constituted the SIT last year to investigate genuineness of the encounter after petitions were filed by Ishrat's mother Shamima Kausar and Gopinath Pillai, father of another victim - Pranesh, questioning the police claims.
The SIT was first headed by Delhi cadre IPS officer Karnail Singh, who was relieved by the court earlier. The court had then appointed Satyapal Singh. The other two members of the SIT are Gujarat cadre IPS officers Mohan Jha and Satish Verma.
While expressing concern over the retraction of statement by some of the witnesses, the court asked the SIT to find out if they were being coerced, threatened or manipulated.
One of the petitioners in the case, Gopinath Pillai, on Friday submitted an application seeking permission to file an independent first information report in the killing of his son and a probe into retraction of statement by the witnesses.
An impression has been created that the SIT investigation conducted until now had not yielded concrete result and the conduct of the two chiefs had led to delay in taking action in the case, Pillai's said in his application filed through his lawyer Mukul Sinha.
He alleged that the probe was being "systematically sabotaged" by persons who could be implicated in the seven- year-old episode.
Because of the "inaction" by SIT chairman Satyapal Singh, the "proposed accused" have become active in influencing and coercing the witnesses to retract statements, Pillai further alleged.
He appealed to the court to provide protection to the witnesses and probe retraction of statements given to SIT.Acting on the plea, the court asked SIT to provide protection to the witnesses. If required, the agency could seek support from the state government for the same.