The Chief Civil Judge and Sessions Court of Bangalore City has drawn up a plan to conduct the trial of the murder of the journalist Gauri Lankesh from July 4, hearings to be held every two weeks of a month.
To begin the trial, the Court of Sessions summoned the first witness – Kavitha Lankesh, younger sister of the murdered journalist– but did not record his statement on Friday as some of the defendants jailed in Maharashtra were not present in court.
The Special Investigation Team has named 17 people from fringe Hindutva groups for the murder plot and the murder of Kannada publication editor, Lankesh Patrike, 55, at his doorstep in the night of September 5, 2017.
On Thursday, a new sessional court judge denied a defense attorney’s request to conduct the trial in the physical presence of all defendants and ordered their attendance by videoconference.
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While eleven of the defendants were brought to court on Thursday via video link, six defendants held at Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail were not. Defense counsel requested the physical presence of all defendants.
“At the hearing of the two parties, the defense’s request to physically force these defendants to be present during the trial is not feasible because their presence by videoconference can be secured. Virtual presence having been accepted as a mode of presence before the court, the said prayer is rejected,” the trial court ruled on Friday.
“Bengaluru Prison and Arthur Road Jail authorities are required to ensure the virtual presence of the defendant during the trial,” the court added.
The magistrates’ court also rejected a request by Special Prosecutor S Balan to open the trial with the recording of the statement of the first witness arguing that it would not identify any of the defendants. “The presence of the accused during the trial being the basic principle of any trial, such a prayer in the absence of the consent of the defense is not tenable,” the court said.
The court said both parties had agreed that the trial would be held continuously for one week per month. He scheduled the first trial session for July 4-8, before releasing the case for a “further case management hearing, if any” on June 4.
The decks were cleared for trial in October 2021 when charges of murder, organized crime and crimes committed with firearms have been laid against 17 members of a far-right trade union by the Main Sessions Court. The formulation of the charges had been delayed for more than two years due to the Covid pandemic and the multiple motions filed by the defendants. Charges have been laid under Section 302 (Murder) of the Indian Penal Code, Section 120B (criminal association) and others related to crimes committed with criminal knowledge and intent, as well as under the Karnataka Organized Crime Act and Arms Act.
Lankesh, an outspoken critic of Hindutva, was shot dead outside her home in West Bengaluru by two assassins on motorbikes. The arrested defendants, who were allegedly trained by a secret far-right group in the use of firearms and explosives, allegedly targeted the journalist for being “anti-Hindu”. They pleaded not guilty.
The defendant allegedly formed a syndicate to carry out murders and attacks – mainly in Karnataka and Maharashtra – between 2013 and 2018.
“Members of this organization targeted people they identified as hostile to their belief and ideology. The members strictly followed the guidelines and principles mentioned in Kshatra Dharma Sadhana, a book published by Sanatan Sanstha,” police said after filing an additional 9,235-page indictment on November 23, 2018. An indictment preliminary charge was filed earlier.
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Early in their investigation, police discovered that the domestically-made 7.65mm pistol used to shoot the journalist was the same one that was allegedly used to kill Kannada scholar MM Kalburgi, 77, at his home in Dharwad on 30 August 2015. The same gun was also allegedly used to shoot left-wing thinker Govind Pansare, 81, in Kolhapur, Maharashtra on February 16, 2015 (he died on February 20, 2015), while a second gun used in the Pansare shooting was found matching a firearm which was allegedly used to shoot Maharashtra rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, 69, in Pune on August 20, 2013.
The investigation into the Lankesh murder case revealed the existence of a network of Hindu extremists in the country. Several of the defendants in this case allegedly received training on weapons and explosives from people identified only by false names and suspected of links to terrorist acts during the period 2006-2008.
The accused arrested are Amol Kale, 37; Parashuram Waghmore, 27; Ganesh Miskin, 27; Amith Baddi, 27; Amith Degvekar, 38; Bharat Kurane, 37; Suresh HL, 36; Rajesh Bangera, 50; Sudhanva Gondalekar, 39; Sharad Kalaskar, 25; Mohan Nayak, 50; Vasudev Suryavanshi, 29; Sujith Kumar, 37; Manohara Edave, 29; Srikanth Pangarkar, 40; KT Naveen Kumar, 37; and Rushikesh Deodikar, 44.