The Bombay High Court on Thursday handed over to CBI the probe into Bollywood actress Jiah Khan's death, five months after Mumbai police concluded it was a case of suicide and charged her live-in partner Suraj Pancholi with abetting it.
The 25-year-old British-American actress was found hanging from a ceiling fan at her Juhu home on June 3 last year.
Noting that they wanted the truth to emerge, a division bench of justices V M Kanade and P D Kode directed CBI to take over the case from the Special Investigation Team of Mumbai police immediately and carry out further probe.
The order was passed on a petition filed by Jiah's mother Rabia Khan, who had raised strong suspicions about her daughter's death being a case of murder and not suicide, as claimed by police in its charge sheet filed in January this year.
The court, while handing over the case to CBI, said it was not expressing any opinion on the merits of investigation done by the police. The judges made it clear that they were not finding fault with Juhu Police who had probed the case.
The court had earlier asked the state and police to form an SIT to probe whether it was a case of murder as Rabia had disputed the investigations by producing forensic evidence privately obtained by her to indicate that her daughter could have been killed.
However, SIT did not begin the probe as Rabia had objected to the investigating team having the same officers who had conducted the probe earlier.
The court today said that it was handing over the case to CBI because SIT had the same officers who had probed it earlier and also as Rabia had produced reports of forensic experts to indicate that there was lacuna in the probe.
The judges also asked the police and the state to extend logistical support and other help required by CBI to carry out further probe.
Juhu police had in January filed a charge sheet in the case, accusing Suraj, son of actor couple Aditya Pancholi and Zarina Wahab, of abetting Jiah's suicide. Suraj had a live-in relationship with Jiah and had allegedly sent a "break up" bouquet to her which prompted her to take the extreme step, police had claimed in the charge sheet.
The court today lambasted the CBI for showing reluctance to take up the case as it faced shortage of officers.
"It is not expected of CBI to come out with such an excuse saying they do not have enough officers to conduct a probe. In a country of one billion people an investigative agency like CBI should not take such a stance otherwise where will citizens go to seek justice," Justice Kanade said.
Reacting to the verdict, Rabia Khan told reporters outside the court, "CBI's stand in the court has surprised us. There is a big question mark on what would happen now."
Justice Kanade noted that Jiah was an American citizen and they had observed that two officers of the US Consulate were attending the proceedings since the last few days. "See how much concern that country has for its citizens. Look at our agency which is refusing to probe citing lack of staff."
CBI should learn a lesson from this and come forward to help in meeting the ends of justice, said the Judges while expressing "surprise and anguish" over the agency's stand.
Rabia had in January this year written to the then US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell seeking FBI assistance in the probe and, according to a communication from the authorities on behalf of the envoy, the FBI was prepared to lend a helping hand in the probe provided India agreed.
The judges were visibly annoyed with CBI for refusing to take up this case. At one stage, they asked the lawyer if she had taken instructions from a competent officer in the probe agency and, if yes, who was the concerned officer.
As she pointed at the officer who was present in the court, the bench asked the lawyer about his designation and the judges were informed that he was an officer of the rank of Additional Superintendent of Police.
Thereupon, the bench said "we are sure he doesn't have powers to give such instructions. Neither he can take such decisions nor you (lawyer) can make such submissions."
It was for a second time that Rabia has approached the High Court for handing over the case to CBI. In October 2013, she had filed a petition seeking a CBI probe but did not press for it after the court asked police to record her statement and investigate the case from the angle of murder.
The police had probed the case accordingly but again concluded it to be a case of suicide and charged Suraj with abetment.
The court noted that Rabia had cited circumstances to point out there was a possibility of Jiah having been killed. She also produced reports of forensic experts on the injury marks found on the deceased.
Rabia, in her petition, referred to an air-conditioner in Jiah's bedroom being on but windows open when she was found dead. There was no explanation as to how Jiah reached the ceiling fan to hang herself when there was no stool in the house, Rabia said, claiming there was a foul play.
Rabia blamed Suraj for her daughter's death and said she had carried out a sting operation on a few witnesses who said in an audio recording that they had not told the police what had been recorded in their statements, thereby raising doubts about the police version that Jiah had committed suicide.
Rabia alleged that the police had ignored the opinion of a forensic expert procured by her.
The expert said prominent injury mark on her neck was not possible to have been caused by a muslin 'dupatta' Jiah was claimed to have used to hang herself.
Also, the injury mark had two prominent outer lines running parallel to each other which was possible if a belt was used for murder. Besides, injury marks on the lips, chin and hands of the deceased had not been explained at all, she alleged.
Government pleader Purnima Kantharia, however, refuted the allegations, saying the points of doubt raised by Rabia had been covered by the police in their probe. The murder angle had also been investigated and ruled out.
Kantharia said the window of Jiah's room was open because a friend of Rabia had told the police that she had opened it as she wanted to smoke.
The government pleader also ruled out the possibility of someone entering Jiah's room from the window as there was a garden below and there would be mud marks in case of an intrusion.
As regards Rabia's allegation that fresh blood marks were found in the room adjoining Jiah's bedroom where she was found dead, Kantharia said the blood sample did not match either with Jiah or accused Suraj.