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Pirates hijack the Sheena Bora murder trial

Last updated on: August 14, 2017 14:35 IST

In walked the scruffy band of pirates, without any swagger.
Mostly tall or burly men, with weather beaten, resigned faces, the majority were dressed in track pants and tees; a few had skull caps.
Some of their T-shirts had messages like 'I'm not in danger, I'm danger' or 'Long Beach California Surfer'.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustrations: Dominic Xavier/, Uttam Ghosh/

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

Did Peter Mukerjea, when he was the successful CEO of Star India, or running INX, ever imagine that one day he might cross paths with Somali pirates?

Or could Indrani Mukerjea have ever dreamed her fate might one day be briefly intertwined with these bandits?

It did on Friday, August 11. Destiny had them meet. At their own trial.

The next hearing in the Sheena Bora murder trial, and the third day of cross examination of Shyamvar Rai, the Mukerjeas' former driver and accused turned approver, got off to a slow start on a warm, sticky afternoon at the south Mumbai sessions court.

Then it was hijacked.

By 26 pirates, no less.

Sudeep Pasbola, Indrani's defence lawyer, had chugged off at a brisk pace, taking on CBI Counsels Bharat Badami and Kavita Patil for Rai's still missing statement to the Khar police station, north west Mumbai, where he mentioned he had asked Indrani for some money.

Pasbola had wanted to confront Rai with it, after he said on the witness stand, one hearing before, that he had not ever asked Indrani for money.

Patil argued that that statement was part of the chargesheet in the arms case (Rai had been first arrested on Carter road, north west Mumbai, for possession of an illegal firearm that he was trying to dispose of) and therefore not pertinent nor was she required to produce it.

She also said there was no statement of that particular date, 24/8/2015. This was refuted.

There was also talk about how a court doesn't have originals like that, but a police station does.

Pasbola charged irritatedly, "Thought they are the prosecution, they are always in defence mechanism!"

CBI Special Judge Jayendra C Jagdale intervened -- his tone is never heavy-handed or commanding, but always reasonable and peacemaking -- and said firmly that the document had to be produced.

He summoned a constable from the Khar police station and asked him in Marathi to get hold of it and issued an order to that effect.

Suddenly, Special Public Prosecutor Ranjeet Sangle burst into Courtroom 51, saying he had to bring the pirates inside.

He asked everyone to vacate most of the room because he kept emphasising that 26 of them had to be brought in and produced before Judge Jagdale right then.

There was a flurry of action as everyone started moving out. A policeman suggested I take my purse away from the benches too.

Indrani, Peter and Sanjeev Khanna, who had been sitting in the accused enclosure, were quickly ushered out, along with their dozen or so police escorts, their crew of lawyers, as well as the young assistants and newbie lawyers, who have been coming in droves to hear this high-profile trial.

In walked the scruffy band of pirates, without any swagger. Mostly tall or burly men, with weather beaten, resigned faces, the majority were dressed in track pants and tees; a few had skull caps.

Some of their T-shirts had messages like 'I'm not in danger, I'm danger' or 'Long Beach California Surfer'.

This is the third and yet another lot of pirates of the next case, titled The State Yellow Gate Police Station vs Ibrahim Abdi Noor and 26 Others.

They had been found guilty and were due to be sentenced by Judge Jagdale. Hence the disruption, given their unmanageable numbers.

The Sheena Bora murder trial had to forcibly take a pause.

It was a tight squeeze getting the 26 into the three back benches. A Taloja jail police official was doing the herding with great efficiency, mostly in Marathi.

Two of the pirates were missing. One was in hospital suffering diabetes and TB. Another had apparently died of it. He would never go home to Somalia.

Hardly had they sat down when they were summoned to the front and Judge Jagdale announced their sentence of seven years, the fines and the penalty of an additional four months if the fines were not paid.

Their Delhi-based defence lawyer Vishwajeet Singh, hired by the Somalian embassy in New Delhi, got up and said they needed to be looked after better, in this interim (6.5 years had already been served), as they were suffering from a variety of health issues unmonitored, so much so that the hospitalised pirate carried little packets of sugar on his person, in case his sugar went down too fast.

The sentence pronounced, 20 minutes later they were packed off like cattle, escorted by over 30 policeman or so, to have their entire palms as well as fingers and thumbs finger printed outside, in some archaic process involving inkpads and rollers and lots of loud thumping.

Back in came Peter, Sanjeev and Indrani.

The State vs Indrani Mukerjea/Bora/Das/Pori and vs Pratim Mukerjea and vs Sanjeev Khanna case took off again, as if nothing had interrupted it.

Shyamvar Rai possibly uttered a few less "yaad nahin" ("don't remember"s) today, than he did the last two hearings as he and Pasbola went at it head on, although Rai's now familiar prevarications still carried the day.

At every question addressed to him, Rai -- wearing a grey bush shirt, khaki trousers and his woebegone, hangdog look -- would visibly recoil and look at Pasbola extremely warily, before turning back to answer to the judge or else study the ceiling searching for clues there.

Sometimes the judge would gently rephrase one of Pasbola's questions to Rai and the driver would then make a much more convincing effort to answer them.

Friday's theme was andaaz se, as Pasbola, playing the magnanimous card, over and over emphasised that he did not want exact dates, or years or figures. Just approximate estimations.

At which Judge Jagdale piped in, with a winning smile, "Andaz Apna Apna."

Still Rai's evaluations about time, distance, or anything else, remained wildly and colourfully vague.

In the vast world of Rai's non-answers, one had learned to differentiate the "maloom nahin"s from the "yaad nahin"s and get a handle on his parlance.

Maloom nahin implied he never knew that odd fact at all, so why even ask?!

Yaad nahin, on the other hand indicated he had knowledge of an issue but, sadly, it has deserted him.

But the "yaad nahin"s seemed to play in well with the direction Pasbola was taking with his cross questioning.

Grilling a witness, I have now learned, is not about drama, unlike the courtroom scenes from movies or television. Pasbola's efforts, with their infinite patience and infinitesimally tiny moves, to build an impression of a man who had a self-serving, skittish memory and no reliability, are a reflection of the skill of a trial lawyer.

Three or four issues of interest came up, worth filing away, till when they may be used strategically against Rai by Pasbola, Shrikant Shivade and Co.

One was the manner in which Rai was arrested.

Again Friday Pasbola asked him how he reached Carter road from his home that crucial day. Could he have gone via Khar-Danda? And wasn't it that he was arrested in Khar Danda and not Carter road, as he had told the Khar police station after his arrest?

Why did the sight of one police SUV make Rai take off running?

Had he not seen police vehicles before?

How many cops arrested him?

Did they check his cell phone after arresting him?

In which direction was he walking?

And was he beside the sea?

From which way was the police vehicle approaching?

Did the police call his family to notify them that he had been arrested?

Did his wife or brother visit him?

How often was he questioned and was it recorded?

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

Some of Rai's noteworthy answers, the rest either skirted or entered "yaad nahin" territory, leading Pasbola to constantly repeat questions in an angry tone:

Pasbola: "Rai, you know driving. Ja sakte hai (can you go) to Carter road from Vakola from Khar Danda?"

Rai, always logical: "Aa bhi sakte hai, jaa bhi sakte hai (You can come and go too)."

Pasbola: "If you go to Carter road via Khar Danda, does it take 20 minutes walking from Vakola East?"

Rai: "Khar Danda is very big. I don't know what area you are talking about."

Pasbola clarified, exasperated, that he is referring to a journey from Rai's home in Vakola East via Khar Danda to the place in Carter road where Rai was arrested with a plastic bag with a gun in it in 2015.

Rai: "Shayad (maybe). Carter road and Khar Danda are alag alag (different) areas."

Pasbola said, with a pretend Eureka look on his face, to the whole courtroom, with mock relief: "Kuch toh sach bolenge! (some truth will be spoken!)."

Rai waffled over where exactly he was arrested.

Patil objected and pointed out that the chargesheet does not say that he was not arrested on Carter road, but suggested that he was arrested around that area.

The former driver emphasised that he distinctly remembered that he felt unease ("ghabra gaya") when he saw the white police SUV and he took off walking faster ("thoda tej chalne ko hua")."

At which Pasbola pointedly commented, as if he had won a trophy, "Bakee yaad nahin, but this he remembers."

But Rai didn't recall if after catching him the police eventually told him they were arresting him ("Yaad nahin kya bola ya nahin bola").

Rai on his family meeting him at the police station:

Pasbola: "Did any gharwallah (family) come to see you (when you were in the custody of the Khar police station)? Your brother? Your wife?"

Rai: "No. Yaad nahin."

Pasbola: "Did the Khar police station people call your gharwallahs to come and see you?"

Rai: "Yaad nahin."

Indrani was alert and all ears while hearing details about the arrest and the pistol.

Today she, looking fetching in yellow, Sanjeev also in yellow and Peter, always in khaki and white, stood for much of the proceedings.

Peter and Indrani took notes. While Sanjeev just watched, perplexed looks sometimes crossing his face.

Some time was spent establishing how long Rai had been living at the address he was at when he was arrested. He said he had been living there for three years.

Pasbola then turned the question on its head, "If I say you were living there for four months, is that wrong?"

Rai fidgeted a bit. Looked uncomfortable and admitted yes.

But Pasbola said Rai told the Khar police station cops that he had been living there just four months and that is on record.

Erm, why? That's Pasbola's next query.

More squirming. Rai: "Yaad nahin. I don't know why it is says that."

He remembered the rent of Rs 3,500, he paid monthly, for his room at Mosambi Tabela, Vakola East, a tiny locality, whose name translates to mean literally orange fruit stable, but not if he had entered into an agreement with the landlord or who the owner was. Or what documents were used to draw up the agreement.

He said his wife Sharda handled all that and she paid the rent for that room where they lived with their two children.

Pasbola: "Is there any document to show that you lived at Mosambi Tabela?"

Rai: "Show whom?"

Pasbola, impatient and loud: "The court!"

Another 20 minutes of the cross questioning dwelled on Rai's IDs. He said he possessed a PAN card, a voter's card and an Aadhaar. But had no ration card.

Then he contradicted himself within the space of 10 minutes. When asked if the address on his Aadhaar or PAN was of Mosambi Tabela, he said it was of previous residences.

About ten minutes later he said he could not remember what addresses were listed on these IDs. His voter's ID had his village address on it, he categorically stated.

It also emerged that he had a passport. He had gone from his village in Madhya Pradesh's Chhindwara district to Bhopal, over just one 6.5 hour trip, by train, to make it (A colleague muttered, "It took me three trips to make mine, how did he get it in one!").

Cross questioning drew to a close with about 15 to 20 questions on the katta.

This was the country-made pistol that Rai alleged in his testimony had emerged from one of the parcels given to him by Indrani before she left India after Sheena's murder.

When had Rai first opened the parcel to see what was inside it? Before he left the Mukerjeas' employment or after?

Rai, after being pinned down, by the judge too, said he opened it up after leaving the Mukerjeas'/INX job.

Pasbola had some critical questions on whether Rai had perhaps told the Khar police station that Indrani had not asked him to throw the gun away, but instead keep it carefully.

"Was it that you wanted to throw it away? And not her?"

Rai fumbled, gave Pasbola a dirty look, did some ceiling gazing and offered: "Yaad nahin. I might have."

One of Pasbola's final questions on Friday was that in his testimony Rai had said on two previous occasions he had attempted to get rid of the gun. All three attempts were a failure because on the third attempt he was arrested.

But what were the details of the previous two attempts? Where did he go to try and dispose of the katta?

Rai was stumped.

Long silence.

He then said in a small voice: "Man mein koshish kiya (I tried in my mind)."

That answer was met with disbelief and ridicule. Pasbola seemed to have muttered something to the effect to his fellow lawyers that: "He is all yours."

As the hearing closed down there was a request: Did Accused 4 (Peter is Accused 4 because Rai is Accused 3) have to keep taking permission to eat? It was established that he needed to.

After some chit chat with their lawyers -- Peter had a box of mangoes to go through and Sanjeev, and probably Indrani too, had a sandwich courtesy his brother -- the process to send them off to jail began.

Indrani and Sanjeev were whisked off in a few minutes. But it was a battle to detach Peter from his lawyers, that started up a verbal skirmish between two policemen, that Peter was unaware of.

One of them, his lips curling, as he spoke, was in a bullying mode, quite annoyed that Peter should get any special entitlement. The other held him off for a good ten minutes.

Shyamvar Rai was rushed through the crowds in the hallway and was taken down to the area where prisoners wait for their buses. He also seemed to be engaged in a lengthy argument with his escorts.

As he waited below, Peter, who was unaware, passed him, he watching Peter.

In that instant you realised how this case had put a former employer and former employee into an identical predicament, whipping away all their rights, and locating them in Mumbai's prisons as prisoners with little privileges and the same status.

You wondered what Rai was thinking at that moment when Peter passed.

Meanwhile upstairs, the 26 Somalians were still being finger printed. The wheels of justice were finally creakily turning, catching up with them nearly seven years later, so they had a few months left of their newly pronounced sentence to serve before they could return whence they came.

As one of the lawyers was leaving, I asked him what kind of witness Rai was proving to be.

"Medium difficult" was the verdict.

Maybe medium difficult will evolve into something else next Friday, August 18, the next hearing in this case.


Vaihayasi Pande Daniel