On September 29, 2008, days before Eid, a blast at Bhiku Chowk in Malegaon had killed six persons and injured over 100.
Thirteen years since a terror attack at Malegaon, the trial against the seven accused in the case continues with 198 witnesses having deposed so far, and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) submitting that it is likely to examine over 60 more.
While the accused, including BJP MP Pragya Singh Thakur and Lieutenant Colonel Prasad Purohit, remained behind bars for nine years before being granted bail, the trial has now been expedited with a special court exclusively designated to hear the case on a daily basis.
On September 29, 2008, days before Eid, a blast at Bhiku Chowk in Malegaon had killed six persons and injured over 100. This was the second terror attack in the powerloom town. In 2006, four blasts in quick succession had killed 31 people. That case is being prosecuted by the NIA separately.
Unlike the 2006 case, where the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) arrested nine Muslim men claiming their involvement in the blast, the ATS then headed by Hemant Karkare claimed to have cracked the case with Thakur’s arrest on October 23, within a month of the blast.
She was the first suspect to be arrested.
The ATS also alleged that intercepted calls had shown the involvement of two others – Purohit and retired Major Ramesh Upadhyay – claiming that the conspiracy was the handiwork of a newly-formed right-wing outfit Abhinav Bharat, floated by Purohit, towards establishing a Hindu Rashtra.
Purohit, who has denied the allegations, has said in one of his applications for discharge pending before the Bombay High Court that he was an intelligence officer who was on duty and had nothing to do with the blast. This contention also forms a crucial part of the trial.
Last February, when the trial in the 2008 attack began, witnesses included victims who suffered injuries. Some spoke of where they were around 9.35 pm when the explosion took place, some who found themselves at hospitals and others similarly injured and shocked by the incident.
Special Public Prosecutor Avinash Rasal said that since one of the accused had refused that a blast had taken place, the NIA had to call victims and doctors who treated them or did a postmortem on those who died, to prove that the deaths and injuries were caused by the explosion. Among the 198, nearly 115 are such witnesses.
Among the other witnesses who have deposed so far include those who were present as independent panchas during the arrest of the accused, house searches or seizures.
The NIA has also brought before court police officers, including those who initially filed the complaint at Malegaon, those involved in the probe, a few forensic experts and an official of the Bomb Detection and Disposal Squad.
The central agency has also examined a few witnesses pertaining to the golden-coloured LML Freedom motorcycle at the centre of the allegations against Thakur.
While the ATS had claimed that Thakur provided the motorcycle for the blast to wanted accused Ramji Kalsangra, the NIA – which took over the probe in 2011 – had said in its 2016 supplementary chargesheet that it was registered in her name but was not in her possession for over two years.
The NIA’s clean chit to Thakur was rejected by the special court, which directed that she face terror charges along with the six others. The agency has examined the manufacturer of the LML Freedom and a dealer. Others, including RTO officials, are yet to be examined.
In its supplementary chargesheet, the NIA has also recorded the statements of witnesses earlier probed by ATS. While NIA and ATS have differed in their probes on certain aspects of the case, specifically on Thakur, both agencies are being represented by Rasal with the court ruling that ATS’ assistance be sought whenever required since there can only be one prosecuting agency.
The previous prosecutor, Rohini Salian, had told The Indian Express in 2015 that she had been asked “to go soft” in the case by an NIA officer.
Among those who have deposed so far, at least three have turned hostile. They included a witness linked to a financial transaction related to Abhinav Bharat. The person denied his earlier statement on Tuesday. Another witness who turned hostile had earlier said he attended a camp in 2008 in Panchmarhi, where the ATS had alleged Purohit gave a lecture on terrorism on religious lines. Special Judge Prashant R Sitre will continue to hear the case on Wednesday.
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