Why Tejpal Was Given The Benefit Of Doubt by Goa Court In The Alleged Rape Case?

Tarun Tejpal Case
Former Tahelka Editor Tarun Tejpal Case

Tarun Tejpal alleged Rape case is one of the biggest high-profile cases that the Goa court handled to date and the national media always kept a very close watch on it. In the culmination of a protracted, almost 8-year long case over the rape and sexual assault of a junior colleague and subordinate, Tarun Tejpal was finally acquitted by Goa court (Mapusa District and Sessions Court) of all the charges in the proceedings on Friday, 21st May.

The founder and former chief editor of the Tehelka magazine were pressed with charges for violating his junior colleague who was also his daughter’s friend, in the elevator of the famous 5-star resort in Goa on two consecutive evenings of 7th and 8th November, while hosting their magazine event- THINK 2013. 

The judgment was pronounced by special judge Kshyama Joshi. The 527-page order said that upon considering the evidence on record, the benefit of the doubt is given to the accused because there is no corroborative evidence supporting the allegations made by the complainant. The court has observed that the Investigating Officer (IO) Sunita Sawant did not conduct investigations on vital points of the case.

The trial was built around the determination of 6 key points with regards to the committal of the alleged incident and the role of the accused. Of these, only one that is- the role of the accused in a position of trust and dominance over the victim, was established. A series of contradictions, lacunae, commissions led to the prosecution losing the case. 

The investigation and prosecution both ailed from laxity. This raises several pertinent questions upon the character of the investigating authorities in the state and the efficiency of the criminal justice system.

The IO admitted that she did not move any proposal before her superiors, that she being the complainant the investigation should be handed to another officer.  On the day of the incident, Tejpal and the prosecutrix were known to have visited the 1st floor of Block 7 of the hotel using the left guest lift. The IO had viewed vital CCTV footage of the first floor of Block 7 of 7/11/2013 on 21/11/2013. 

This was evidence that showed the two exiting the elevator during the relevant 2 minutes of the incident, and was crucial evidence. However, there was what seems to have been a deliberate delay by the IO in the seizure of the footage. Thereby destroying the proof that could have potentially exonerated the accused. 

Further, the IO gave orders to other investigating officers to procure the CCTV footage of only the ground and second floors, and not the first floor. Nor was the DVR room in which the crucial first-floor evidence was housed, sealed. The IO was also unaware of the “hash value” (an essential certification of the integrity of stored data) of the secured footage. This makes it difficult to completely rule out the possibility of tampering with the evidence.

The next most definitive element of the case- the guest lifts too, were not thoroughly investigated. There were several lapses and omissions in this regard. For instance, no inquiry was made into the time taken by the guest lift to move between the ground, first and second floors or the number of times the lift gates opened on the ground floor during the relevant two minutes. There also exists an emergency intercom in the lift but this was not investigated. 

The emergency stop button present in the lifts was also not shed light on. Important evidence such as the reflection of the light inside the lifts onto the floor when the lift gates open were not given due importance. In a case where these facts are pivotal to the restructuring and verification of accounts, these lapses hinted at contrivance against the accused and therefore contributed to the tipping of the judgment in favor of Tejpal.

The lift panel at the hotel is manned by 2 personnel at all times and shows the directions and movements of all the lifts in the blocks in addition to indicating when the emergency stop button is pressed. However, this area was not investigated whatsoever. The judgment revealed that the IO attempted to investigate the red stop button inside the lifts as recently as November 2020, 7 years after the FIR was filed. This too was done without prior notification to the court, and under the pretext of checking whether the hotel had reopened in Covid times.

The prosecution contended that reliance can be placed on the sole testimony of the victim of rape if it is reliable. However, the victim here did not qualify as a “sterling witness”. There were reported several inconsistencies and implausibilities in the statements given by the victim. For instance, the victim had in her earliest testimonies reported that during the relevant 2 minutes, the lift was constantly in “circuit”, as a result of the accused having pressed multiple buttons. 

However, sufficient unequivocal evidence had been established against the testimonial with several witnesses stating that the lift automatically opens on reaching a floor, and there is no such button to prevent it. 

When the victim was examined on the operation of the life for the very first time in December 2020, she reneged on her previous statements and claimed that it wasn’t multiple buttons but just one button that the accused had pressed (and that she couldn’t recall which), but that she had earlier thought the lift to be in motion because the gates did not open throughout the relevant 2 minutes. 

Apart from this, the change in the file size of the initial and later testimonial documents (which signals changes, edits, and improvements) that was shared with the witnesses was not investigated by the IO.  All this weakened the reliability of the victim as the chief witness. Further, the IO was aware that the victim had written down all details of the alleged incidents on 15/11/2013 and yet the same was never asked to be seen, nor attached as evidence!

Further, there have been several disputes with respect to the normative response of victims of assault. The victim, in this case, was seen to exhibit no signs of trauma or shock and had in fact been captured as looking “cheery” and “normal” in photographs at parties and events following the incident. 

Women’s rights activists and lawyers however have raised their voices in opposition to this aspect claiming that there is no template for how a victim of assault must behave in order to be eligible for justice. And although absolutely valid, these arguments fell silent in comparison to the contradictions and faults made in the investigation process.

Pointing out loopholes in the probe, the judge said that the acquittal of an accused cannot result solely due to the defects in the investigation, it is the fundamental right of the accused to have a fair investigation. But the IO has committed omission and commission while conducting the investigation and therefore gave the accused the benefit of the doubt.

In a recent interview following the judgment, Chief Minister Pramod Sawant expressed his displeasure on the acquittal of Tejpal. “We will not tolerate any injustice to be meted out to the women in Goa. We will challenge the district court’s order before the high court soon in this case,” he was quoted saying.

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