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Sheena Bora Trial: And Sheena's passports turn up...

Last updated on: June 16, 2019 12:37 IST

Her elfin face could be seen and once more after many days the victim of this murder had a face and a presence.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Scads and scads of dark clouds were drifting across the sky like plodding grey elephants as one entered the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, Kala Ghoda, south Mumbai, on Friday, June 14, 2019.

By late afternoon the sky was heavily overcast and evening came hours early to the court.

The corridors were shrouded in darkness.

The only sunny note was the giant two-tone, bright vermillion and cobalt blue tarpaulin, to prevent rainwater leakage, that was spread across the tiled roof of the heritage wing of the sessions court, that could be spied from any window.

The monsoon had returned yet again to the sessions court, for the third time since the Sheena Bora murder trial began in early 2017.

This season of rejuvenation and new beginnings seemed to have brought with it a special new pace in the trial under the aegis of Special Public Prosecutor Ejaz Khan.

Just like the southwest monsoon, Khan meant business.

 

Not one witness, but four -- or was it five -- were waiting at 2.45 pm, sitting on the hard wooden bench outside Courtroom 51, a few steps away from where Indrani Mukerjea, arrayed in white malmal and melon pink Lucknowi chikan, was sitting religiously doing her paperwork with her faithful assistant/friend and lawyer Radha (Radhakrishna Thyagaraja Iyer).

Sanjeev Khanna arrived a little late. His photographer cousin was already waiting for him.

The first witness to be called to the stand was a Sushil Pandey, yet another panch (witnesses to the series of panchnamas or testimonies created during the police investigation into Sheena's 2012 death).

Pandey, in his late twenties or early 30s, who might have walked out of the eligible bachelors matrimonial classifieds to arrive at No 51, had all the attributes of A Suitable Boy -- tallish, handsome, well-built, with atha-katha (chunky) biceps, a shock of wavy hair, thick eyebrows and a nattily manicured French beard.

Tidily dressed in a long-sleeved, bright white linen shirt and blue jeans, a large black dial watch on his left wrist and a gold ring set with a black stone on the middle finger of his right hand, Pandey also sported a rather suitable courtroom mien.

He stood very dutifully in the stand, his hands constantly clasped in front of him. Never raised his voice. Always looked directly at the lawyers, prosecutors or the judge, sometimes beaming charming smiles. He often wagged his head from side to side in assent and his answers were peppered with respectful "Jee"s or "Yes sir"s.

Pandey preferred to speak in spasht (clear) Hindi although he occasionally broke into English.

He told the court initially that he was in business and later clarified that he had a "film production house", but his Facebook page, where he has exhibited pictures of himself with actors Salman Khan and Sohail Khan, describes him as 'actor/senior model/producer' and his friends refer to him as 'model bhai.'

Pandey's job in court on Friday was simple -- to provide his account of a visit to the Khar police station, north west Mumbai, on a September day back in 2015, where he stood as a panch along with a Rohan Rai for the deposition of two passports belonging to murder victim Sheena Bora and a phone.

He set out these facts in his chief testimony that was conducted by Khan in a systematic, detailed manner, assisted by Man Prakash, another CBI public prosecutor.

Like all garden variety Khar police station panchas, as we have seen earlier, an odd coincidence -- or call it strange providence to hear Pandey tell it -- brought him into the vicinity of the Khar police station on September 24, four-and-a-half years ago.

Pandey woke up at his Santa Cruz residence that day with a single-point agenda for the day -- to fill petrol in his motorcycle and renew its PUC (pollution under control certificate) which had expired.

Normally, he said, his days are filled with "shooting schedules and meeting times", but on Thursday September 24 luckily, or extraordinarily, depending on how you look at it, he had nothing more exciting or pressing planned than catering to the needs of his vehicle.

He set out from his home in the early afternoon, puttering towards Khar and chose the pump smack-bang next to the Khar police station, because he explained peculiarly, in unnecessary detail, it was the one ideally located for him.

While he was standing in line -- there were two or three people in front of him -- waiting his turn for a PUC inspection a police havaldar from the Khar police station strolled over to him.

He could not remember if the havaldar approached anyone else in the PUC van queue, but he did remember the havaldar coming towards him wearing a nameplate and was wielding a stick, "haath mein danda."

He no longer remembered the name inscribed, apologetically and politely adding "mein ne pada tha, par kafee waqt ho gaya (I read the name, but no longer remember because a lot of time has elapsed since)."

The havaldar told him: "Sahib ne bulaya, chota sa kaam hai (Sahib has called you for some small work)." He was not told which case it was in connection with and he remembered feeling momentarily disconcerted, but was told not to worry that only a little help was needed from him.

When Pandey reached the police station, an officer there told him he was needed to testify as a panch or witness for the submission of certain documents/material in the Sheena Bora murder investigation.

The documents turned out to be the passports of Sheena and a cell phone.

Another panch was also waiting there. And another person.

Pandey did not mention that Peter's son and Sheena's partner Rahul Mukerjea was present when the police took these items into their custody or safekeeping, although it was Rahul Mukerjea who had taken a phones and her passports to the Khar police in 2015.

The absence of Rahul Mukerjea's name in Pandey's account seemed both mystifying and irregular.

The passports were put into sealed packets. And Pandey remembers signing on the envelopes. His fellow panch also signed.

The cellphone was examined, its voice recordings heard and messages checked out -- "Phone ka kuch recordings the, inbox mein, messages the sent box mein (There were recordings in the inbox and messages in the sent box)."

Later it was connnected to a computer at the police station and the contents were transferred to two CDs, Pandey confirmed.

The passports and CDs that were deposited that day, before Pandey, four years ago, had to be shown in court on Friday. Initially, the passports could not be located and the court clerks shuffled through a whole bewildering collection of similar wax sealed brown envelopes to no avail.

Khan proceeded with Pandey's testimony using photocopies, warding off strenuous objections from Indrani Mukerjea's lawyer Gunjan Mangla and weathering CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale's chidings.

Finally, a packet was located that had some six passports in it! That brought more drama.

Some of the passports were blue, one was red, another was a light blue.

Mangla jumped to her feet and pointed out that as per records there had been mention of only one passport belonging to Sheena.

Khan and the clerks kept shuffling the various envelopes of passports as Mangla watched with an eagle eye.

She was on her feet again to point out to the judge that the prosecutor was moving passports from one envelope to another. Impressed with Mangla's spunk, the judge smiled broadly, and said he would record her objection.

Khan mumbled, suggesting it was a mix up by the court clerks: "Bechara staff (The poor staff)..."

Mangla: "Bechara staff nahin!"

It transpired there had been mislabelling of the packets and Sheena's passports, which had a certain exhibit number, had been stuck into a packet with other passports and another exhibit number. Mangla still looked deeply suspicious.

Judge Jagdale, equally suspicious and curious, asked, in his amused, puzzled fashion, who all the other passports belonged to.

The other passports belonged to the accused.

Sheena's passports were passed around. The defence lawyers examined them. The older passport contained a UK visa and a Schengen one.

The more recent one contained no visas and had probably been renewed just before her death/murder. Her elfin face could be seen and once more after many days the victim of this murder had a face and a presence.

Mangla, wearing a white pin-tucked blouse, black slacks and her black lawyer coat and white tie, began her cross-examination of Pandey in her now signature spirited, determined, style.

It is no easy business to be a young woman defence lawyer in a largely male bastion and Mangla goes at it in a feisty manner, making certain she is definitely heard. Often the objections and retorts that fly her way don't come to her other male colleagues, you notice.

Referring to him carefully as either Mr Pandey or Pandeyji, she dissected further how Pandey had so conveniently happened to be at the Khar petrol pump next to the police station. She also wondered what Pandey did with his bike while he was in the police station for three hours from 1 pm to nearly 3 pm.

Crucially, she asked if he knew Rohan Rai.

He said he did not. And that they had never met before that day at the Khar police station. But that they met again at the CBI office: "Wahan par mulakat huee. Waiting par the (We met at the CBI office, we were waiting together)."

They seemed to have consequently become rather too good friends.

Rai was sitting with Pandey before the hearing on Friday. They left together. They are friends on Facebook too.

Rai works as a general secretary for the Congress party's north-central district and interestingly has pictures of himself with various dignitaries and policemen, including an assistant commissioner of police, posted on his timeline.

Can it still be a coincidence that Pandey and Rai became panchas?

Was Pandey really plucked off the road from a PUC testing van?

Mangla in closing declared that the panchnama had not been drawn up in front of Pandey and that he had probably only signed at some other date.

Sanjeev's lawyers declined the opportunity to cross-examine Pandey.

It was expected that Peter Mukerjea's lawyers would too, but his advocate Anoop Pandey told the judge that he needed to explore any references/connections between Rahul Mukerjea and the witness.

Judge Jagdale countered, with a pointed smile, that Rahul's name had not even come up. He wondered why it was necessary.

Anoop Pandey still felt it essential to examine Pandey.

Everyone was tickled that two Pandeys were facing each other in a 'cross'.

Judge Jagdale especially amused: "Both Pandeys!"

Anoop Pandey: "Pandey cross examining Pandey."

Anoop Pandey, who is a short man with a strong voice, took over examining his namesake. He asked several questions. He tested Pandey's memory, asking him his license plate number. And checked if Pandey had been to the Khar police station before.

Importantly, he asked if that day in 2015 after testifying at the Khar police station if Pandey had any place to be urgently. Pandey apparently had not.

It was getting onto four and Mangla came across and whispered in the lawyer Pandey's ear, perhaps urging him to finish quickly. A few minutes later, Anoop Pandey wound up his 'cross', accusing Pandey delivering a false "gavai" (testimony).

Pandey: "Mein kyon jhooti gavai du? Mera koi lena dena nahin hai (Why would I give a false testimony? I have nothing to gain or lose)."

Khan then got up to unexpectedly announce that he would like to proceed with a certain next witness.

There was another round of commotion. Not so much it seemed for the fact that there would be a next witness, but for the choice of witness.

Mangla said they would not be in a position to cross examine this next witness because that had only received his name earlier in the week. She also said her senior colleague Sudeep Ratnamberdutt Pasbola was not available on Saturday to cross examine this apparently crucial next witness.

Mangla kept requesting that the witness deposition be put off till next week because he was a critical witness. Apparently, the witness was an expert and not a panch.

Khan suggested that he would at least complete the witness's examination in chief. And Mangla and Pasbola could schedule the cross examination for the next day. He added he still had two more witnesses outside, apart from this next one, that he was keen to complete on Friday

Judge Jagdale, always implacable and rigid when it comes to suggested delays, heard Mangla's request out, but agreed with Khan that at least the next witness's testimony could begin.

So Susheel Murlidhar Rao arrived at the stand.

Wearing a red and black checked shirt and black jeans, Rao introduced himself as the owner of Dotcom Services India Pvt Ltd. Rao's firm, which was into providing e-mail solutions and domain names, rented servers in the US and then hosted clients.

One of their clients was INX Global, the Mukerjeas's former company. He had been approached by the Khar police for access to the e-mail communication of INX.

A short-ish man, slightly balding, Rao with his calm, secure manner immediately established himself as a solid witness.

Judge Jagdale first spent about five minutes gravely probing how Rao legally had the right to retrieve information from these servers without getting the necessary permission from the US. Rao said he might rent the servers from companies in the US, but that he had total access to all the data on the servers he rented.

At that point Mangla piped in: "That's why he is such a crucial witness", indicating an important reason to postpone the hearing for Pasbola.

Judge Jagdale, irritated at being interrupted, snapped at her and said, "It had nothing to do with that."

Rao's testimony, a short one, began with Khan questioning him about the sanctity of his data and verifying the request made to Rao by the Khar police.

When Rao's 'chief' came to a close, the issue of scheduling of Rao's cross-examination started up again. Mangla first asked Rao if he had time available next week. Khan pounced on her: "He is my witness. Don't talk to him!" and said Rao's convenience was no concern of the court and he had to be there if he was needed.

Mangla said she would try to locate Pasbola and have him cross-examine Rao then and there. The judge said he had a meeting at 5.20 pm and it was almost five. Nevertheless, Mangla stepped out with Pasbola's assistants to speak to him.

She came back to say he was finishing a cross examination in another court and could not come and would not be available on Saturday either.

Judge Jagdale was firm that the cross-examination of Rao would happen on Saturday with or without Pasbola and that delays would not be entertained because he had directives from the high court to conduct these proceedings on a daily basis especially since the accused had been in jail already for nearly five years.

He suggested Mangla take the help of Peter's lawyers of whom Vishal Gupta was a qualified expert on computers.

Mangla, in turn, requested that the prosecution keep them better informed about which witness would take the stand on which day.

After the earlier languid witness a week/fortnight approach, having a couple of witnesses at every hearing will be a new path for the Sheena Bora trial. It means that the defence lawyers will have to be on their toes. That's perhaps the effect Khan is striving for.

It is not something that makes the accused unhappy. For them quicker movement in the trial is more than welcome given that they have been languishing in prison for close onto 50 months and a shorter time frame gives less opportunities for "tutoring the witnesses" as someone representing the accused said.

By the time Indrani and Sanjeev departed for jail it was nearly 5.15 pm. A heavy downpour had ensued.

Five women police officers briskly escorted Indrani down the stairs, about half an hour later than they would have preferred.

Indrani, while descending the stairs in her characteristic vigorous fashion, chatted with them and instructed that they needed to bring her early on Saturday. "Bahut important witness hai (a very important witness)."

They demurred, saying they would bring her by noon. She continued to insist that she needed to be at the court at least 20 minutes before the hearing time.

No one had umbrellas.

The rain was coming down fast and hard.

The last view one had of Indrani on Friday was of her picking her away around the puddles, her head and shoulders draped with her white chunni as she and her escorts made a dash for the prison truck.

VAIHAYASI PANDE DANIEL / Rediff.com
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