The ISRO espionage case that shook the country in 1994 and has taken various twists and turns since, is seeing new developments with the start of a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) against the cops involved in the arrest of former ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan and others.
A first information report (FIR) was filed against 18 police personnel including former Police Chief Siby Mathews, former Deputy Director of Intelligence Bureau RB Sreekumar and then Sub Inspector of Police S Vijayan, who arrested Narayanan.
The CBI made a statement on the objections filed at the High Court of Kerala against the anticipatory bail application submitted by the accused, saying the false charges had hampered the growth of India’s cryogenic technology. According to the CBI, the chances of international conspiracy if any also need to be investigated.
CBI’s charges against police officers
Opposing the bail application submitted by the police officers, the CBI filed objections on July 7, 2021, which is posted for further argument. The CBI had filed an FIR at the Magistrate Court in Thiruvananthapuram against 18 cops, charging them with offences under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). These included submitting false documents, criminal conspiracy, wrongful confinement, torture in custody to obtain a confession, and extortion.
Mathews, former Police Chief and then DIG who headed the special investigation team (SIT) that probed into the espionage case, made certain revealing statements in the affidavit submitted in the session’s court of Thiruvananthapuram claiming innocence. He stated that he was pressurised by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) to arrest Narayanan and former Police Chief and then IG Raman Srivastava.
The affidavit said: “The arrest and questioning of Mr Sasikumar and Mr Chandrasekhar revealed further information strengthening and corroborating the statements of the Maldives citizens mentioned above. It further strengthened the involvement of Mr Nambi Narayanan, a scientist in ISRO, in the above said case and by this time the IB officials were pressurising the Special Investigation Team and the senior police officials of the State of Kerala in the joint conferences to arrest Mr Raman Srivastava and Mr Nambi Narayanan and others, stating that the matter is one related to the security of the nation and positions of such persons shall not be a hindrance for stern actions against them.”
The Mathews-led SIT investigated the case for just 20 days; the case was later taken over by the CBI.
The CBI then submitted a closure report saying no espionage had happened and the case built by the Kerala police was a completely baseless one. The Kerala government made an unsuccessful attempt to open the case again by ordering further investigation, which was strongly opposed by the CBI. The Supreme Court quashed the order for further investigation saying the state government had no power to do it as it was transferred to the CBI earlier.
The CBI also sent separate reports to the state government and to the Centre, pointing out lapses on the part of the Kerala police as well as IB officials who made a parallel investigation in the matter. It requested the Kerala government to take ‘such action as deemed fit’ against the police officials involved in the case.
Narayanan, in 2003, approached the National Human Rights Commission claiming compensation for the insult and injury he allegedly suffered. He also filed a compensation claim in the sub court at Thiruvananthapuram. He had been in jail for 50 days, when he was allegedly tortured to give a confession.
During the pendency of his claims for compensation, the government decided to take no action against the cops who committed allegedly lapses as found by CBI. Narayanan challenged it in the High Court, where a single bench turned down the government’s decision not to proceed against the cops.
Mathews challenged this in the division bench, which dismissed the order of the single bench and upheld the government’s decision not to proceed. Following the appeal filed by Narayanan, the Supreme Court appointed a committee headed by Justice Jain to submit a report on the matter. The Jain committee submitted a report to the Supreme Court in a sealed cover on March 25, 2021.
After examining the report, the Supreme Court sent a copy to the Director of CBI, instructing him to consider the same as a preliminary report and to take appropriate decision.
Next phase in long battle
This set off the next phase of the ISRO espionage case. On the basis of the findings of the Jain committee report, the CBI registered an FIR against 18 cops involved in the arrest of Narayanan and others.
It would appear that the fresh developments in the case open a Pandora’s box. It is not the first time the alleged involvement of higher officials of the IB has come to light. Narayanan had alleged earlier too that he was tortured in custody for refusing the demand put forward by two IB officials to implicate AE Muthunayagam, a then senior space scientist with ISRO.
Now, Mathews is also pointing fingers at top IB officials. Though the CBI had given a report recommending proceedings against both Kerala police and IB officials, several obstacles came in the way. It was never set in action till the Supreme Court sent the Jain committee report to the CBI.
Narayanan, at 80, is not ready to give up. He has entered a new phase of the battle by filing an impleading petition against Mathew before the Principal Sessions Judge of Thiruvananthapuram. The arguments in the case will be further heard next week.