Murder case or accident: The mysterious case of Kerala journalist’s death

The biggest lapse in the case came as the delay in taking the blood sample of the accused. Additional Commissioner of Police of Thiruvananthapuram, Sanjay Kumar Gurudin, in the defence stated that there were certain legal formalities to be followed when a person refuses to undergo medical tests. Article unfolds the illicit interventions of Kerala Police in the investigation of K.M. Basheer’s death ‘mystery.’

 

Yasar Arafath Nurani

The infamous case of death of KM Basheer, the Thiruvananthapuram bureau chief of Malayalam daily Siraj, involving IAS officer Sriram Venkitaraman has once again come to the limelight.

Following the developments of the last one week, the special investigation team headed by SP A Shanvas has filed a charge sheet on February 1. The 66-page charge sheet names Venkitaraman as the first accused and his co-passenger at the time Wafa Firoze as the second accused. Details from over a hundred witnesses have been recorded and 84 material evidence too have been gathered.

Basheer, who was all of 35 years old, is survived by his wife and two small children.

 

Alcohol, speed took away a promising life

On August 3, 2019, Basheer was returning home on his bike after attending an official meeting in Kolam, when he was hit by the speeding Volkswagen car driven by Venkitaraman about 1 am near the Public Office building in the capital city of Kerala.

Meanwhile, Saifudeen Haji, Director of Siraj newspaper, filed a First Information Report in the case with the Museum police station. A case was registered under section IPC 279 (rash driving on a public way) and 304A (punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder) against Venkitaraman and Wafa, who owns the car.

Venkitaraman was allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol and speeding at the time of the accident.

Following the accident, Basheer was taken to the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College hospital, where he was declared dead on arrival.

Venkitaraman was also taken to the same hospital first as he had also sustained some injuries in the accident, but he later shifted to Kerala Institute of Medical Sciences (KIMS), a private hospital in the city.

Meanwhile, Saifudeen Haji, Director of Siraj newspaper, filed a First Information Report in the case with the Museum police station. A case was registered under section IPC 279 (rash driving on a public way) and 304A (punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder) against Venkitaraman and Wafa, who owns the car.

The police, in the FIR, didn’t make any mention if Venkitaraman was driving under the influence of alcohol.

Venkitaraman, when questioned by the cops at KIMS, had claimed that it was Wafa and not him who was driving the car on the fateful night.

The IAS officer remained in the private ward of the luxury hospital for a day after the accident. The police produced him before a local magistrate on August 4, only after journalists from the state put pressure on police and threatened to go on a strike if Venkitaraman was not shifted to a jail cell.

The magistrate remanded him to a 14-day judicial custody, after which he was shifted to the government hospital’s ‘prison cell’.

 

They saw it all

The incident took a curious turn after four eyewitnesses claimed that Venkitaraman drove the car, even as the police claimed that Wafa was driving when the accident took place. The police, in the beginning of the investigation, had claimed that the lady travelling with Venkitaraman was driving the car. A parallel narrative propagated by the Facebook page of D Dhanasumod, a man claiming to be an eyewitness to the crash, stated that he saw a man in his 30s coming out of the car after the accident.

“Around 12:55 at night, when I saw people, police vehicles and a van crowded near the museum public office, I parked my cycle and went to see what was happening. There was a bike that stood leaning against the wall of the building. Suddenly, I saw the man who was lying down. He was bleeding. The police were waiting for an ambulance as it was too risky to take him in the police jeep due to his critical condition,” he wrote.

Another eye-witness K. Jithu, working at Rings By Annie Hotel at Kowdiar, said he is an eyewitness of the accident. “I was on my bike going home and suddenly the car came from behind. It was all of a sudden that I could hear a loud noise of the car and it kept honking continuously. I just rode my bike away from the road and I saw the car hit Basheer. He was only 20-25 metres away from me. The car rammed the backside of his bike and it hit an electric post. The frontside of the car was also damaged. I thought all of them were killed. When I checked the car Venkitaraman and Wafa were alive and came out of the car,” he told Newslaundry.

“The lady came out of the car from the passenger’s seat and the man was driving the car,” he stated.

He added that they waited for over 20 minutes for help to arrive.

Another witness Jobi Joseph said Venkitaraman looked drunk when he came out of the car. “I was returning from a movie,” he said. “Venkitaraman’s legs were wobbly. He told the police that Wafa was driving the car,” he told Newslaundry.

The police initially claimed that the car was driven by its owner, Wafa of Marappalam, while Venkitaraman sat on the passenger seat. However, two auto-rickshaw drivers—Shafeeq and Manikuttan at Thiruvananthapuram city, who claimed to have witnessed the incident—told mediapersons that it was the IAS official who was driving the vehicle at the time of the accident. They also claimed that he was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the incident.

 

Delayed alcohol test became ground for bail

On August 6, 2019, Venkitaraman’s lawyer filed a bail plea in the court on the basis of the IAS officer’s blood alcohol report which was taken almost after nine hours of the accident.

The Judicial First Class Magistrate – III granted bail after going through the blood reported of Venkitaraman; it tested negative.

The state government in its petition to the High Court said that the delay (in taking blood samples) was because they couldn’t trace the IAS officer–who had by then left the hospital. It was only at 9.45 am that they found out he was at KIMS–a private hospital in the city–where they then went to get his blood sample.

The magistrate, A Aneesa, prevented Venkitaraman from leaving Kerala. The court said it would revoke his bail if he tampered with evidence, interfered with the investigation, or swayed witnesses.

The next day, Venkitaraman was suspended from government service over the accident.

Questions were raised over the police’s handling of the case.

The Kerala government (prosecution) moved the High Court twice, on August 7 and August 13, with a plea to stay the bail granted to the IAS officer. The court rejected the plea and also pointed out some serious lapses in the investigation done by Kerala police.

The state government in its petition to the High Court said that the delay (in taking blood samples) was because they couldn’t trace the IAS officer–who had by then left the hospital. It was only at 9.45 am that they found out he was at KIMS–a private hospital in the city–where they then went to get his blood sample.

Khasida Kalam, a reporter with Media One news channel, said, “Even though the accident took place a short distance away from the Museum police station, the police acted to save the IAS officer from the very beginning.”

Kassim A Khadar, a journalist with Siraj and Basheer’s friend, believes there was a cover-up in the case. “Just after the incident—it was all of a sudden—all officials including police officers, doctors, civil servants, politicians and many others joined hands on a single night to save Venkitaraman,” Khadar alleged.

The biggest lapse in the case came as the delay in taking the blood sample of the accused. Additional Commissioner of Police of Thiruvananthapuram, Sanjay Kumar Gurudin, in the defence stated that there were certain legal formalities to be followed when a person refuses to undergo medical tests.

However, the cops failed to consider section 204 (2) (b) of the Motor Vehicles Act, which gives the police the authority to take blood samples if the person refuses consent. Apart from this, the cops didn’t subject Venkitaraman to a breathalyzer test in the initial hours or a urine test if the blood samples were taken after a long gap.

According to Dr Sheeja, the Resident Medical Officer of Thiruvananthapuram General Hospital, Venkitaraman was brought there just before 2 am (an hour after the accident). At 2.07 am, Dr Rakesh Kumar, the duty doctor, inspected him and noted in his report: ‘Alcohol smell – Positive’. However, despite the accident and the doctor’s preliminary noting, Venkitaraman’s blood test was not taken at this hospital. The doctor told KG Kamalesh, an Asianet News reporter that since the IAS officer was neither an accused nor had an FIR against him, he did not ask for a blood test. According to the doctor, the SI Jayaprakash, too, did not insist on a blood test.

A blood test taken later and analysed at the Chemical Examiner’s Laboratory in the city showed that Venkitaraman’s blood did not have any trace of ethyl alcohol. However, the blood was drawn only after 10 am, nine hours after the accident.The alcohol in the blood metabolizes completely in about four to six hours, and becomes difficult to trace. The traceability becomes tougher as time lapses. A urine test is a better gauge to test alcohol traces in the body since it is not eliminated immediately; however, there is no indication that a urine sample was taken from Venkitaraman.

After outrage from the journalist fraternity over the botched up investigation, the sub-inspector at the Museum police station Jayaprakash was suspended for failing to conduct a proper investigation and Station House Officer Santhosh Kumar of  Museum Police Station was transferred to Kasaragod.

 

Journalists put pressure for fair probe

After the incident, the Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) demanded a proper and truthful investigation in the case to bring the guilty to book.

The Chief Minister of Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan took to social media to express his condolences. All media including print, electronic and online news portals together came with reports against the IAS officer’s mistakes and the political game. Many eyewitnesses responded. However, the police found no CCTV visual during the investigation. Many protests led by the journalist community demanded justice for Basheer.

The failure of the police to subject the passengers to medical tests soon after the accident has also been questioned. Initially, Wafa was purportedly sent home in a taxi by the police from the accident scene, said Nizar Mohammed, another Thiruvananthapuram-based journalist. “She was later summoned by the police and subjected to a medical test. Venkitaraman, who was admitted to the General Hospital with a minor hand injury, allegedly refused to undergo tests. Later, while he was referred to the Government Medical College Hospital by the police, he chose to seek treatment in KIMS, a private hospital in the city.”

Even CM Vijayan in a press meet held later raised the issue “of Venkitaraman using medicine to prove that he had no alcohol in his body should be investigated”, but hasn’t been investigated.

 

Siraj fighting for justice

Saifudeen Haji, Director of Siraj newspaper, said that the police from the very beginning of the investigation ensured that no evidence could be produced against Venkitaraman in the court. “I am sure that many people who tried to save Venkitaraman, are involved in the case and influenced the investigation.”

“When we realised that the police investigation is being influenced, we requested the Kerala government through the Siraj Daily management to change the investigation team,” said Abdul Khadir, Basheer’s relative. “That is how a special investigation team headed by Additional Director-General of Police Dr Sheikh Darvesh, has taken charge,” he added.

“The investigation team heads on the right way to find the truth and no culprit is going to escape from the case,” the Superintendent of Police and coordinator of the investigation A Shanvas pointed out.

Abdul Gafur, the Managing Director of Siraj, said, “The Kerala government supports the victim and we expect the accused will be caught. We still wonder how easily a killing changes into a normal road accident,” Gafur added.

 

Suspension extended to 90 more days

When the news of ‘Kerala journalists killer to join service soon’ came out in the last week of January as the suspension of the IAS officer by the Kerala government was going to end, the journalists from the state were not surprised. A recommendation to this effect was made by an officials’ committee chaired by Kerala Chief Secretary Tom Jose to Chief Minister Vijayan. In his explanation to the Chief Secretary, Venkitaraman stated that his friend Wafa was behind the steering wheel when the accident happened and alcohol was not found in his blood during the subsequent test. In his seven-page letter, Venkitaraman had rejected the allegations, especially of drunk-driving, against him.

The KUWJ acted quickly and requested CM Vijayan not to revoke the suspension of Venkitaraman. The organisation alleged that Basheer’s death had happened due to Venkitaraman drinking beyond permissible limits and driving the car. Basheer’s family is also sure that this is a case of drunken driving, the journalists wrote in their letter. The case is currently being investigated by the Kerala Police. If the accused is pressed back into service, then there are concerns that this could influence the investigation in a negative way as the accused is a powerful IAS officer, the letter stated.

Acting on the KUWJ request, the government extended Venkitaraman’s suspension for another 90 days on January 30.

 

A charge sheet filed, finally

The chargesheet filed on February 1, 2020, has named Venkitaraman and Wafa. According to the chargesheet, Venkitaraman invited Wafa to a party to celebrate his return to service at a Kowdiar flat around midnight on the night before the accident. The young IAS officer had been on leave for over a year for higher studies at Harvard University. Wafa came to the place in her Volkswagen car. However, she couldn’t find the IAS officer at his flat. She tried to contact him on his mobile phone but all her attempts went in vain. Later, she drove around Vallayambalam-Kowdiar road twice until she found Venkitaraman sitting on a bench at a nearby park. She stopped the car near a coffee shop opposite Raj Bhavan, after which Venkitaraman got into the driver’s seat.

According to the police, Venkitaraman wanted something to eat from Palayam and took to the wheels by himself. While they were on their way to Palayam, the car rammed Basheer’s bike at 12.55 am. According to Wafa’s reported confession before a magistrate, Venkitaraman attended a party and was under the influence of alcohol. She also confirmed that Sriram was driving the vehicle from Kowdiar.

 

Many lies by the IAS Officer, Charge sheet details

The major findings disclosed in the charge sheet clearly underline that the IAS officer Sriram Venitaraman tried to hide what actually happened on the day of accident. Even Sriram has got no serious injuries in the accident, he has recommended to the doctors at the General Hospital that he has to be referred into the Medical College Hospital. The museum police crime SI confirmed “a smell of alcohol” with the consulting report of Dr. Rakesh S Kumar who has consulted him first at the General Hospital. Instead of going to Medical College Hospital, Sriram called his friend Dr. Anish Raj and went to KIMS, a private hospital in the city, all the way without any communication with police and got admission in there. And at KIMS, Sriram has hidden the fact that he has hit KM Basheer and he lied to doctors and medical staff that the car hit a compound wall. According to charge sheet, the doctors at KIMS have confirmed that Sriram has deliberately hidden about his crime. He also said to doctors at KIMS that his friend has driven the car. Dr. Masel Gladiolus and Dr. Srijith, doctors on duty in the casualty of KIMS have said that Sriram has denied the nurse to take blood sample. According to the charge sheet, it was Sriram who deliberately tried to have a delay not to get blood sample to metabolize alcohol in the blood completely. Wafa Firoze has given her car to Sriram to drive even after she has known that Sriram is drunk. The charges under the IPC 304, 201 and Motor Vehicle Act 184,185,188 have been filed against Venkitaraman and Wafa. The charge sheet also confirmed that Sriram has driven the car in 100 km/hr speed which is the prime reason for the accident. In the charge sheet, here are 100 witnesses, 84 documents, 72 mainours and many statements along with scientific evidences have been included by the police.


 

(Yasar is a Kozhikode-based freelance reporter and Chief Creative Director at Epistemic Breaks)