Cops recall 7/11 probe challenges

Cops recall 7/11 probe challenges

By VINAYA DESHPANDE | | 18 September, 2015
There were no clues in the beginning as crucial evidence was lost because of rains.

Would I have been able to see Mumbai otherwise?" a suspect in the 7/11 Mumbai serial blasts had told the investigating officers when it became obvious that he had falsely taken blame for the crime. Recounting the exhaustive investigation that led to the conviction of 12 of 13 arrested by the MCOC court for the blasts in local trains in Mumbai nine years ago, a retired police officer said they began the probe out of nowhere as crucial evidence was lost due to excessive rain. At the very beginning, they were misled by a terrorist group which claimed responsibility for the attack. "Our team went to Kashmir to interrogate the terrorist. When Tafahim Aqmal Hashmi, who was apprehended by the security forces in Jammu and Kashmir, was brought to Mumbai for the questioning, he told us in a candid moment that he had claimed ownership of the attack because he knew he would be brought to Mumbai, thereby giving him a chance to see the country's finance capital.

"While he was being taken to J.J. Hospital for check-up, he saw Badi Masjid and Nagpada area, where Muslims were offering prayers. He said he was surprised to see Muslims living freely as there was propaganda in Kashmir that Muslims are under constant oppression in Mumbai. I will never be able to forget that moment when he told us this," the officer said. Hashmi was later released as no case was registered against him. On 11 July 2006, seven bombs ripped through the packed local trains in Mumbai leaving 188 dead and over 830 injured. The still-nascent and resource-crunched Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) was given the task to investigate this terror attack, which had left no clue behind. A few months later, the agency filed a charge-sheet before the special Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime (MCOC) court in Mumbai, against 13 arrested and 15 absconding accused.

On 11 September 2015, the special MCOC court held 12 of them guilty under various charges which can get a maximum punishment of death sentence. The 135-member ATS team had submitted a 12,459-page charge-sheet and 12,000-page document as a part of the 4,000 exhibits. As many as 192 witnesses were examined by the prosecution and 51 witnesses were examined by the defence. Current ATS chief Vivek Phansalkar said the judgement was the reward of the hard work of 135 officers who had worked incessantly to solve a challenging terror case. "The verdict is a vindication of our efforts. I am happy that the court has appreciated the evidence collected by us," K.P. Raghuvanshi, then chief of Maharashtra ATS, told reporters outside the court.

First air travel for Mumbai Police

"This was the first case for which any Mumbai police official travelled by air," said Sanjeev Tonapi, a police officer who had worked with the field intelligence team of investigation. Tonapi took voluntary retirement three years ago. He had travelled to Bihar with a team of officers and had made the first arrest — that of Kamal Ansari — from Madhubani district. A chicken-seller from Madhubani, he was accused of procuring explosives and transporting Pakistanis through the Nepal border. He allegedly received training in Pakistan. Soon after the blasts, seven teams were formed by the ATS for each blast case. Eight to 10 more teams were formed to separately look after interrogation and gathering information from the field. The ATS had only 20 officers on its rolls then. So the ATS secured the attachment of various police officers from different police stations, who were experts in a particular field. "We hung on to every clue we got. We travelled to different states, went under-cover, tracked phones, made inquiries, only to verify a single clue. We were desperate. The heinous criminals had left no clues behind," said Prasad Khandekar, who was the investigating officer of the Borivali blasts case in which 26 persons had died and 153 were injured.

Teams of ATS and Mumbai Police went to various states including Tripura, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal to get clues about the case.

'No media, please'

"Yes, we had stopped talking to the media. Their over-zealousness was adversely affecting our investigation. Whenever we received any clue and wanted to approach any suspects, these people would already reach before us," said an Assistant Police Inspector, who was associated with the probe.

This is how they started

"Each member of the investigating team had made a detailed map of the trains where blasts were carried out. The position of each blast was marked. For days, one team travelled on the same route at the same time to identify regular travellers who would be able to provide valuable leads," said retired Senior Police Inspector, Dinesh Agarwal. He was a part of the ATS when the blasts took place. He was the investigating officer of Mira Road blast where 31 persons were killed and 122 were injured.

Missed a lifetime opportunity by skipping U.S. visit

On 12 July 2006, then police inspector Sunil Deshmukh and Police Sub Inspector Vasant Tazne were to fly to the US to undergo a special training on post-blasts investigation, in Louisiana. "But after the blasts, we were told by the CP that we will have to stay back to probe the case. But I have no regrets that I missed that opportunity," said retired ACP Sunil Deshmukh.

Rain ruined evidence

The biggest spoilsport was the rain, as crucial evidence was lost due to incessant rainfall. "It was July, a season of heavy rainfall. We were very unfortunate that crucial forensic evidence was lost at the blast site due to this," API Dinkar Mohite said.

When a cigarette saved an investigator's life

A few officers had gone to Jammu and Kashmir and were roaming around there as tourists. "Once, a hand grenade burst near me. Thankfully, I had moved away for a smoke. That cigarette saved my life," remembered Sanjeev Tonapi.

A human encyclopaedia on terror attacks

Assistant Police Inspector Dinkar Namdeo Mohite was attached to the Malabar Hill police station when the 7/11 blasts took place. He being an expert in documentation, was immediately brought to ATS on deputation to assist on the case. Since then, the man, informally known as the human encyclopaedia on trials of terror attacks in Mumbai, has been associated with the investigating agency. "His memory is very sharp. He will give you details about the dates and names of the accused, witnesses, and officers. He is often the reference point for us," a senior IPS officer told The Sunday Guardian.

Worst opportunism

Prasad Khandekar, Investigating Officer of the Borivali blasts case, said how one Sagar Vyapari had falsely claimed that the body of blast victim Mithun Jitendra Gandhi was that of his father's. He had even claimed Rs 1 lakh government compensation. Later, a missing person's complaint helped reveal that the victim was someone else. A case was registered against Vyapari and his wife.

Crucial arrest

Sunil Deshmukh said the most crucial arrest in the case was that of Asif Khan Bashir Khan. Originally a resident of Jalgaon in Maharashtra, he lived in Surat in 2005, and shifted to Mumbai before the blasts. He had moved his family from Surat to Belgaum in Karnataka in 2005. After the blasts, when investigators stumbled on his name; they found that he was charge sheeted in the Jalgaon case too. "We sent teams to Jalgaon where we came to know that he had disappeared since 2001. We, however, found out that his brother often visited Surat. So while a team remained stationed at Jalgaon, another team went to Surat where we found that the place his brother visited had now been occupied by a new tenant. We found a tempo driver who had moved the luggage of the previous family from Surat to Belgaum. This is how we traced Asif Khan Bashir Khan, who he was living with a new name and identity," he said. "His arrest was crucial to bring this case under MCOCA," Deshmukh said.

Record witnesses

Investigators said that this was the only case where as many as 51 defence witnesses were examined. "Generally, in such cases, not more than 10-12 defence witnesses are examined," Agarwal said.

Lock-up used as interrogation room

The ATS did not even have its own interrogation room. Overnight, the Bhoiwada lock-up was transformed into an interrogation room.

The team still talks fondly of ACP S.L. Patil, who was made the IO of the case after the seven cases were clubbed together under MCOCA.

"He has a remarkable memory. He recorded 475 pages of evidence without taking support of a single chit of paper. He deposed before the court continuously for 28 working days to record his statement," Mohite said. Patil is now in the US.

The team also fondly remembered the late ACP Vinod Bhat, who was a specialist in documentation. "He single-handedly co-ordinated the whole case. He could read between the lines when he saw the court documents. He guided us to file proper documents. The judgement is a tribute to him," Khandekar said. Bhat committed suicide a few years ago.

The MCOC court will hear arguments on the quantum of sentence for the 12 accused from Monday.

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