Hyderabad: The Supreme Court’s decision to constitute a three-member inquiry panel led by a retired top court judge, Justice V.S. Sirpurkar to go into the “encounter” killing of the four accused in the Hyderabad victim’s gang rape and murder case two weeks ago, has shocked the top brass of the Telangana police, for two major reasons: first, the minor status of the four youths; and second, absence of enough evidence of their crime.

The Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde on Thursday ordered for an independent probe panel to unearth all facts surrounding the encounter killing of the four youths, who were accused of raping and murdering the victim on 27 November. The four youths were killed by the police of Cyberabad on 6 December when a “scuffle” allegedly broke out between them at the crime site, at Shadnagar, on the outskirts of Hyderabad.

The Supreme Court heard a batch of writ petitions filed by different groups that alleged that the encounter was fake and that the police had tried to hide facts rather than bringing the guilty to justice. Senior counsel Mukul Rohatgi, who appeared for the Telangana government, had resisted a suggestion from the Supreme Court for a probe as already the High Court, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and an SIT (special investigation team) were on the same job.

The Telangana government has constituted an SIT led by senior IPS officer and Rachakonda police commissioner, Mahesh Bhagawat, to investigate the whole sequence of events right from the gang rape, murder by burning the victim alive to the encounter killing of the accused. This team is meant to assist the High Court, which is hearing some petitions.

The NHRC, too, sent its own team to Hyderabad on the same day of the encounter. The rights panel team returned to Delhi on Thursday and placed its preliminary report to the Supreme Court. The High Court, on the other hand, stayed the cremation of the bodies of the accused, until further orders and called for a report from the state’s cops. The Supreme Court’s panel will submit its report within six months.

As the Cyberabad police are struggling to furnish answers to questions raised by these three probes, the Supreme Court’s order setting up another panel is bound to stretch them to their limits. Sources in the Cyberabad police commissioner’s office told this newspaper that the Supreme Court order has pushed the gang rape and murder of the victim to the background, while focusing on the encounter of the accused.

This, per se, is not a problem to the cops who are equipped with all the evidence to explain the circumstances that led to the killing of the accused at the spot. However, what worry them the most are other issues like fresh records that show that all the four accused were minors and that there was not enough evidence to establish their crime.

Cyberabad police commissioner V.C. Sajjanar, who appeared before the Supreme Court early this week, was facing the heat of the grilling by the judges who were not satisfied with the ongoing probe at the state level. The top court has stayed the three probes—NHRC, HC and the SIT. There is uncertainty over powers of the Supreme Court initiated probe panel.

The High Court on Thursday told the state government to seek clarification from the Supreme Court on the cremation of the dead bodies of the accused that are lying in the mortuary of Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad for the last one week. Already, two post-mortems were conducted on these bodies and there is a chance of one more being carried out by the Supreme Court panel.

The presence of former Bombay High Court judge, Rekha Baltoda, and former CBI chief D.R. Karthikeyen on the panel too is a matter of concern for the cops as they are expected to go into minute details of the encounter. There are demands from some rights activists that the case be referred to the CBI and the presence of ex-CBI chief would satisfy such pleas.

A major concern of the cops is that the Aadhaar cards of the four accused—Mohammad Arif, Shiva, Chennakesavulu, Srinu and Naveen—have stated that they were all minors, below the age of 18 years. However, the FIR field by the Cyberabad police at the Shadnagar police station mentioned their ages between 21 and 26 and the policemen do not have any recorded evidence to prove their point.

If the youths are found to be minors, then the police would face grilling from the Supreme Court panel as to why they had not bothered to verify their actual age and followed a different procedure to their judicial and police custody. The parents of all the four deceased have questioned why they were not informed of their sons’ arrest or police custody.

The Cyberabad police have built their entire case based on the confessional statements of the accused and there is not enough independent evidence to prove their culpability. In case the accused may have wanted to withdraw their statements as per provisions of the CrPC, they could have done that. Now that they are dead, they cannot exercise that option, an angle which might be highlighted by the Supreme Court panel.