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Prime witness in Dalit youth Gokulraj murder recalled by HC, continues to be hostile

Exasperated judges asked Swathi if she considers the judicial system as a ‘playground’ and that she was not respecting the oath she took.

Swathi, the ‘prime witness’ of the 2015 Gokulraj caste murder case, reappeared before the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on Friday, November 25. Gokulraj, a Dalit youth was abducted on June 23, 2015, for visiting a temple with a classmate who was from the Gounder caste. His mutilated body was later recovered from the Namakkal district of Tamil Nadu. Swathi, who was the friend who visited the temple with Gokulraj, turned hostile in court. However, a sessions court found S Yuvaraj, founder of the caste-outfit Maveeran Theeran Chinnamalai Gounder Peravai, and nine others guilty of the murder, primarily depending on corroboratory and circumstantial evidence. According to the police, Yuvaraj and the others took Gokulraj to a secluded hill and murdered him after forcing a video and ‘suicide note’ out of him. His head was hacked and the body was disposed near the railway tracks to make it look like a death by suicide.

While hearing various appeals on this verdict, a Division Bench of the Madras High Court consisting of Justices MS Ramesh and N Anand Venkatesh wondered how a star witness can turn hostile this way. The judges ordered that Swathi be brought directly to the judges’ chamber with full police protection.

On November 25, Swathi was taken to the judges’ chamber, and despite the judges asking her questions directly, she continued to maintain that she did not know anything about the murder. After the murder, during the primary stages of the investigation, Swathi told the police that she was present with Gokulraj on the day of his abduction in 2015, but she refuted this later before the trial court.

She said that she did not meet Gokulraj on the day of his death, adding that she made the initial statement out of fear of her parents who were present at the police station back then. The Bench also played the CCTV footage of the temple where Gokulraj and Swathi were present on the day of his abduction and asked her to identify the persons. However, Swathi said that the woman in the video was not her, but she recognised Gokulraj.

An audio conversation purportedly between Swathi and Gokulraj’s family member, who questions her about the people who abducted Gokulraj was also presented in court. However, Swathi maintained it was not her voice in the audio clip. When asked about the phone number in the audio clip, Swathi denied that she ever had that number and said she did not know whose number it was.

The Bench later asked her if she considers the judicial system as a ‘playground’ and that she was not respecting the oath she took. “If this continues, we will have to charge you with contempt of court,” the court said and adjourned the hearing to November 30.

Swathi fainted in between the questioning and was taken to a hospital, bringing the hearing to a temporary halt.

Why Swathi was asked to reappear in court

The Division Bench recalled Swathi to appear while hearing a batch of appeals against the trial court judgement that sentenced the prime accused and others to life imprisonment. Gokulraj’s mother had filed an appeal to award capital punishment to the accused, whereas the convicted filed pleas challenging the life sentence.

Pointing out that Swathi was a ‘star witness’ in the Gokulraj murder case as she initially played an active role in assisting the prosecution, the court said that something had transpired between the date of recording her Section 164 Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) statement and the time she was called to the trial court. “[She] appears to have completely turned turtle from her previous statements,” the court said and added that the trial court ‘simply declared’ her hostile and discarded her evidence without eliciting the cause for this sudden somersault.

Read: Tamil Nadu’s Dalit blind spot: A barbaric murder, a family’s search for truth and justice

The Bench headed by justice Anand also said that the trial court has a duty to play a ‘participatory role’ in such trials, especially in cases where the star witnesses turn hostile, and flagrant contradictions are noticed in the evidence. “It is for this reason that the trial court has been invested with powers under Section 165 of the Evidence Act [Judge’s power to put questions or order production],” he said.

The judge also added, “There could be no greater affront to the system of administration of justice if courts are to remain mute spectators when star witnesses turn hostile in front of it. We have no hesitation in saying that there exists a duty on the court, in such cases, to exercise powers to put necessary questions to the witness to satisfy itself as to whether the witness is answering questions truthfully.”

Read: The murder which shook Tamil Nadu: Gokulraj’s death to Yuvaraj’s surrender, all you need to know

Stating that witnesses turning hostile is now a regular feature, particularly in sensitive cases, the High Court Bench pointed out that the apex court had emphasised that the State must ensure protection to witnesses.

Further, asserting that not recalling Swathi to the court will be a clear failure of justice, the Bench said that they are exercising their powers under Section 391 CrPC suo motu to recall Swathi to the witness box, in order to “satisfy judicial conscience, particularly in the light of the fact that this case is loaded with communal overtones”.

Recalling the lack of protection ahead of her arrival at the trial court, the High Court Bench said that they do not want to repeat the same mistake. The police were directed to accompany Swathi and extend protection to her and her family members, and directly bring her to the judges’ chamber.

Read: Gokulraj’s murder: Dreams of youth crushed by arrogance of oppressor caste

Source: The News Minute