Mumbai, July 12 (IANS) A Mumbai Sessions Court Friday awarded the life sentence to 21 people, including 13 policemen, for the killing of gangster Ram Narayan Gupta, alias Lakhanbhai in a staged shootout or "encounter" Nov 11, 2006.
This comes as major embarrassment to Mumbai Police.
The prime accused in the case, former "encounter specialist" and dismissed policeman Pradeep Sharma, was acquitted of all charges and set free by the court July 5, when the verdict was delivered.
Delivering the quantum of punishment for the remaining 21 accused, including high-profile policeman Pradeep Suryawanshi, Sessions Judge V.D. Jadhwar slapped them with life in prison, before a packed courtroom this afternoon.
Among other things, the 21 have been found guilty of murder and destroying evidence of their acts by the court.
Besides Suryawanshi, the others sentenced Friday are: Vinayak Shinde, Tanaji Desai, Ratnakar Kamble, Shailendra Pandey, Hitesh Solanki, Sunil Solanki, Aquil Khan, Mohammed Sheikh, Manoj Mohanraj, Nitin Sartape, Devidas Sakpal, Janardhan Bhange, Dilip Palande, Prakash Kadam, Ganesh Harpule, Anand Patade, Pandurang Kokam, Sandeep Sarkar, Suresh Shetty and Arvind Sarvankar.
Shortly after the verdict, the family members of Suryawanshi claimed that the officer was innocent and they would challenge the verdict in the Bombay High Court.
They further alleged that Suryawanshi, who was leading the "encounter" team that killed Gupta, was framed in the case and that he was a victim of the infighting among top police brass.
The sensational case, in which so many police personnel have been convicted for the first time in the state's history, went on for two years during which 110 witnesses were examined.
According to the prosecution, on Nov 11, 2006, a police team had picked up Gupta alias Lakhan Bhaiyya and an associate, Anil Bheda, from Vashi in Navi Mumbai, on suspicion of being members of the absconding mafia don Chhota Rajan Nikhalje's gang.
Later that day, Gupta was gunned down near the Nana-Nani Park in Versova in north-west Mumbai, and the incident was described as a gunfight.
Four days later, Gupta's brother and lawyer Ramprasad Gupta filed a plea in the Bombay High Court alleging that it was a staged gunfight, and in reality, a "brutal murder".
The sole witness to the entire incident, Bheda, who was initially detained by the D.N. Nagar Police, was later taken to Kolhapur and then brought to Mumbai where he remained in lock-up for a month.
Following Ramprasad Gupta's plea, in February 2008, the Bombay High Court ordered a magisterial probe into Gupta's killing.
In September 2009, the magistrate, in his report to the high court which set up a Special Investigation Team to probe the case, concluded that it was a "cold blooded murder".
The SIT nabbed Pradeep Sharma, the prime accused in the case, Jan 8, 2010, besides 21 others involved in the Gupta killing, and booked them.
Meanwhile, on March 13, 2011, the sole witness in the case, Bheda, went missing from his home in Vashi, just four days before his scheduled court deposition.
His wife moved a habeas corpus petition in the high court, alleging that he had been kidnapped and may have been killed.
Her fears were proved true two months later, when the Navi Mumbai Police recovered an unidentified decomposed body. DNA tests confirmed the body was Bheda's.