Tejpal deserves to get copy of CCTV footage, but we don’t

(First published in Scroll.in on 19 February 2014.)

Accused of rape, Tarun Tejpal on Tuesday criticised the Goa Police for not making available to him the CCTV footage that forms part of the evidence mentioned in their charge sheet against him. The former editor of ‘Tehelka’ magazine issued a press statement to the effect after receiving a copy of the charge sheet in Vasco jail, even as the Goa bench of the Mumbai High Court deferred his bail plea to March 4.

“It is violative of due process, to not make all collected evidence available to the accused at the time of filing the charge sheet,” Tejpal wrote. “In fact, receipt of the footage is what we have been impatiently waiting for since the last three months. This duplicity is in keeping with the sinister and motivated political vendetta that is being pursued.”

But Goa Police officials say Tejpal will be given copies of all evidence, including the CCTV footage in a few days. In fact, if Goa Police does not do so, Tejpal can move court under section 207 of the Criminal Code of Procedure to get it.

In his statement on Tuesday, he referred to a press release he had issued on November 22, before he was arrested, in which he had urged “the police to obtain, examine and release the CCTV footage so that the accurate version of events stands clearly revealed.” Tejpal says that he is being denied a copy of the footage because “The Goa police know their fabricated case will collapse the moment the footage is revealed and compared with the ‘testimony’ of the alleged victim…”

Tejpal told reporters on his way to court, where his lawyer was absent, “Ask for CCTV footage.”

While it is Tejpal’s right to get a copy of all evidence, many are troubled by his insistence that the CCTV footage should be “released” in the public domain. “Putting out the CCTV footage in public would be unlawful as it would reveal the victim’s identity,” says lawyer Vrinda Grover, adding, “Besides, what purpose would it serve in the course of justice? It is not you and me but the court which has to decide the case. It is for the courts to see the CCTV footage and hear arguments about it from the state prosecutor and Tejpal’s lawyers.”

Grover says this is an indication of Tejpal wanting to be exonerated through a trial by media, even as he accuses the media of vilifying him. Urging the media to acquire CCTV footage of his alleged assault could make the case a bit of like a reality TV show, where the audience casts its votes to decide whether or not the offence was committed. In the statement, Tejpal writes, “I have been in jail since November 30th simply because the Goa police, clearly acting under the orders of their political bosses, have refused to release this crucial footage of the relevant days, 7th and 8th November. This entire case hinges on the 130 and 45 seconds (as per the charge sheet) of contested time which can be brought to light via the CCTV footage.” However, the charge sheet does not rest the case on the CCTV footage.

A copy of the operative part of the charge sheet, obtained by Scroll.in, uses the CCTV footage only to establish the timing of the offence and the fact that the accused and the victim both entered and came out of the lift, on 7 and 8 November 2013, at the Hyatt hotel in the Bambolim area of Goa.

The charge sheet notes that there was no CCTV equipment inside the lift as the installation of CCTV cameras inside the hotel was not complete. Yet, one piece of CCTV footage, the charge sheet says, shows, “the accused Tarun Tejpal by catching the hand of victim took the victim in the lift and the door of the lift closed”.

The charge sheet places far more importance on other pieces of evidence, the most crucial of which is the victim’s own testimony. These include her email to Tehelka managing editor Suparna, alias Shoma Chaudhury, and her statements to the police and a magistrate. Rape jurisprudence in India places high value on the victim’s statement, as long as the court is convinced that the victim’s “sole testimony” is of “sterling quality”.

“An accused can be convicted with no other evidence if the court is convinced of the sole testimony,” says Rohit Kaliyar, a lawyer who practices at the Saket sessions court in Delhi and often represents both rape victims and people accused of rape.

If the testimony is substantive evidence, the most important corroborative evidence after that in the Tejpal case is that the victim confided in her friends, who are witnesses in the case. Then there are Tejpal’s SMS messages and emails in which he seems to admit his crime. “Despite your clear reluctance…” he wrote in one apology email, suggesting that the acts were not consensual.

The charge sheet concludes, “There is sufficient evidence available in the form of documents, statements and electronic records on record to prove that on 7th November 2013, Victim was raped, sexually harassed, and her modesty outraged inside an elevator in the lift of Guest House No 7, Hotel Grand Hayatt [sic], Bambolim Goa by her own employer Tarun Tejpal, Editor-in-Chief of Tehelka  Magazine.” Despite this, Tejpal in his statement claims, “The fact is most of the officers in the crime branch know there is no case, and have said as much to me.”

He also claims the case is a political conspiracy. He writes, “I’m afraid what we are witnessing here is an early sign of the inherent fascism of the right wing that will target its detractors in the most sinister and underhand ways… It’s a crying shame that a major party that is bidding to rule the great pluralism that is India is imbued with no tolerance of dissenters and critics, of whom I certainly am one.”

That, clearly, can’t be a legal argument.

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