On the night of April 15, 2014, Leonard Valdaris woke up to loud banging on the front door of his house in Mumbai’s Bombay Port Trust Colony. “Open the door. Open it!” he heard voices shouting outside. “Is Richie home?”
Scared by the loud banging in the middle of the night, and strangers shouting for his son, Leonard did not open the door. Instead, he called out that his son, Richie, wasn’t home, and asked the visitors to return in the morning.
A voice replied, “We are the police. Open up, or we will break the door down.”
Leonard didn’t know at the time that this group of men — personnel from the Government Railway Police, or GRP — would upend his life. In less than 48 hours, Richie, 25, would be dead, killed by the GRP in lockup.
Richie, whose real name was Agnelo Valdaris, is now an official statistic, one of 1,800 people killed in police custody between 1999 and 2017, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau. At least 404 of these deaths were in Maharashtra, where FIRs have been filed in just 53 cases and chargesheets in 38. In not a single case have the accused police personnel been sentenced yet.
Agnelo’s case is illustrative of the suffering of the hundreds of people who have died in police custody, and the futile quests for justice of their families.
Agnelo was arrested that night along with two other men and a minor boy. They were beaten mercilessly in custody for nearly nine hours, sexually assaulted and, in Agnelo’s case, killed.
Six years later, one of the men arrested along with Agnelo recounted to Newslaundry what happened that night.
At around midnight on April 15, 2014, Leonard didn’t know what was to come. He opened the door and saw a young boy standing with four plainclothes policemen. One of the policemen said they were from the GRP and had come to arrest Agnelo for chain snatching. Agnelo wasn’t home; he was at the home of Leonard’s parents in Dharavi that night. The GRP searched Leonard’s house, and then took him and his younger son, Regan, with them.
“They said they would take me to Sion hospital. They said they would then call up Agnelo and tell him I had met with an accident. And whenever he would arrive to check up on me, they would arrest him,” Leonard recalled. “I told them there was no need to do all this because I would take them to Agnelo myself.”
Instead, the policemen drove Leonard to his parents’ house. As soon as the door was opened, some of them pounced on Agnelo and started beating him, Leonard said, while the others searched the place. “They stopped beating him only when I said I would complain to the higher authorities. When they couldn’t find anything in the house, they took Agnelo with them.”
Regan and Leonard were left behind in Dharavi, confused and frightened.
That night, the police also arrested three of Agnelo’s friends – Sufiyan Khan, 21, Mohammad Irfan, 19, and a 15-year-old boy who had been brought to Leonard’s house. They were arrested on suspicion of chain snatching and were taken to the GRP’s Wadala police station.
From midnight on April 15 to the evening of April 16, the four were brutally tortured.
But Leonard knew nothing of what was happening. He waited until the afternoon of April 16, hoping that the police would produce Agnelo and the others in court. They didn’t.
“I swiftly sent a complaint by fax to the then police commissioner, Rakesh Maria,” Leonard recalled. “Then I waited. On April 17, the police produced only Irfan and Sufiyan in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railways court.”
The court was near the GRP lockup. Afterwards, Leonard managed to meet Irfan and Sufiyan.
“They had bruises all over their bodies,” Leonard recalled. “The skin on Irfan’s back was badly torn. They told me the police wouldn’t produce Agnelo in court, that they were beating him badly.” Leonard immediately headed to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railways court, where he complained to the magistrate. The magistrate directed the Wadala GRP to produce Agnelo in court by that evening.
The police did not comply. When Leonard, armed with the court order, went to the Wadala GRP station he was told Agnelo had been taken to Sion hospital for “minor bandaging”, and that he would be produced in the Bhoiwada court the next day. So, Leonard hurried to Sion hospital to see his son.
“His wrists were bandaged. He couldn’t walk properly. He started to cry profusely when he saw me,” Leonard said. “He was saying, ‘Daddy, save me. These people will kill me.’ He said the police beat him continuously at the station and would not take him to court. I consoled him and said nothing would happen to him. Seeing my child crying like that filled me with hopelessness and dread.”
The GRP men at Sion hospital told Leonard that his son had informed a doctor that his injuries were a result of torture. Get Agnelo to change his statement, they threatened the father, otherwise they would not produce him in court.
Leonard said the police urged him to write on a medical document that Agnelo’s injuries were self-inflicted and his allegations of police brutality were “baseless”.
“Agnelo kept asking me not to write that but I had no choice,” Leonard said. “I couldn’t watch him in that condition. The police had beaten him so much. I had to save him, so I wrote, under the police’s pressure, that my son had injured his wrists himself.”
The police duress was confirmed by a doctor at Sion hospital. Dr Ejaz Hussain later submitted a statement to the CBI saying that he had been present when the police brought Agnelo for a “checkup”. Hussain wrote that he himself had been pressured by the police to prepare a report in their favour, stating in the hospital’s casualty register that Agnelo’s injuries were self-inflicted.
Hussain refused, so the policemen pressured Agnelo’s father to write it instead in the outpatient department paperwork. Newslaundry has a copy of the doctor’s statement.
According to Hussain, Agnelo also informed doctors at the hospital that he had suffered a major chest injury. A doctor advised the police to get Agnelo’s chest x-rayed, but they ignored him.
About an hour later, Agnelo was discharged and the police took him away. It was around 8.30 pm on April 17, 2014.
That was the last time Leonard saw his son alive.
That night, after Leonard had gone home, an officer from the Wadala GRP station named Suresh Mane, phoned and asked him to come down and “give a statement”. Leonard replied that he had already given his statement at the hospital, the one he had been coerced to write.
The next day, Leonard’s younger son, Regan, received a call from an unknown number. It was Agnelo using a policeman’s phone. He told his brother he was “dehydrated” and asked him to bring Glucon D, a glucose drink. Agnelo also said he had been beaten the previous night by the police.
At around 11.30 am on April 18, Leonard went to the Bhoiwada court, as instructed. The police did not turn up, neither did Agnelo. He called Suresh Mane, who directed him to go to Sion hospital.
“When I reached the hospital, they took me to the morgue. The dead body of my son was placed there,” Leonard said. “They said he had tried to escape from police custody and died by suicide by jumping in front of a train. I fainted when I looked at his body.”
‘It felt like I would die that day’
But what happened to Agnelo, Irfan, Sufiyan, and the minor boy from the night of April 15 onwards?
For the three men who survived, the memories of those hours are burned into their brains. They had been arrested shortly before the police arrested Agnelo in Dharavi.
“At the station, the police tore away all my clothes and made me lie down naked on a table,” Irfan recalled. “They beat me with sticks and a grinder belt.” This kind of belt is popular with the police who refer to it as satyashodhak patta, or truth-seeking belt.
His three friends were being beaten in the same room. Irfan lost consciousness after sometime. The police poured water on him to revive him and started beating him again. Irfan said he was then forced to perform fellatio on Agnelo and the minor.
Soon after, Irfan’s hands and feet were tied. He was suspended upside down from the ceiling, a metal rod between his legs. A policeman tried to insert a wooden stick into his rectum, he said, while telling Irfan that petrol would be poured into his rectum if he didn’t “confess”.
The “confession” the police apparently wanted was regarding a chain snatched from a local train passenger at Dockyard Road station two days before. Most bewilderingly, a witness to the snatching had looked at the four men during an identification lineup and clearly told the police that they were not the men who had snatched the chain.
Irfan was beaten as he hung upside down. “The pain was unbearable. While beating me, they kept asking me to confess that I was the one who had committed the theft,” he said. “But every time, I told them that I was innocent. Due to the pain, I wanted to urinate so I requested that they bring me down so I could go relieve myself. They said if I wanted to urinate, I should do it hanging upside down and drink it.”
“After a few minutes, I couldn’t control it anymore and started urinating,” he added. “My urine was falling on my face.”
His voice broke off and he fell silent.
The police left Irfan hanging, he said. He still doesn’t know how much time had passed until they returned. By then his pain was unbearable, so he confessed to the theft. The police then made him run naked inside the police station. “The pain was excruciating. I did not have enough strength to walk but they forced me to run,” he said. “It felt like I would die that day.”
On the evening of April 16, after eight or nine hours of assault, Irfan, Sufiyan and the minor were taken to the hospital for a medical checkup. Agnelo was left behind; Irfan said Agnelo had complained of chest pain at around 4 pm, started frothing at the mouth, and fainted. But the police paid no heed to his requests to take him to the hospital.
While Irfan, Sufiyan and the minor were gone, Agnelo told him after their return, he had been beaten again.
On April 17, Irfan and Sufiyan were produced at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway court while the minor was taken to juvenile court in Dongri. Agnelo, again, was left in the police station.
On April 18, the police told his family and friends that he was dead.
“They claimed on April 18 that he died after colliding with a train while running away from police custody,” Irfan said. “But we knew the police were lying. Richie received such a beating that he couldn’t walk properly, let alone run.”
After their court appearance, Irfan and Sufiyan were remanded to police custody for two days and then shifted to a prison. They were released two days later. The minor was sent to a juvenile home and released after 15 days.
A father’s fight for justice
On April 30, 2014, Leonard Valdaris registered a complaint at the Wadala police station regarding his son’s death. Irfan and Sufiyan were party to the complaint.
The case was handed over to the Maharashtra criminal investigation department a few days later. SD Khedekar, the deputy superintendent of police, CID, was tasked with leading the investigation.
Leonard, Irfan and Sufiyan said they were “threatened” by CID officers during the course of the investigation, and pressured to withdraw their statements. Leonard filed an appeal in the Bombay High Court and the case was transferred to the CBI that June.
The CBI found that officers at the Wadala police station had tampered with evidence. For example, Agnelo was arrested at 2 am on April 16 from Dharavi. The police diary, however, noted the date of arrest as “3.45 am/pm” on April 17.
Then there was Agnelo’s postmortem report, seen by Newslaundry, which detailed injuries that were 24-96 hours old. His head showed multiple blunt force traumas from not more than 12 hours earlier. In the last 24 hours of his life, he had suffered multiple injuries to his hands, feet and back. He had also sustained multiple internal injuries: broken ribs on both sides, injuries to his lungs, and antemortem injuries on his head and face.
All these injuries put together could result in someone’s death. There was no basis for the GRP’s theory of Agnelo dying after being hit by a train.
In 2016, the CBI chargesheeted Wadala GRP station officials Jitendra Rathod, Archana Pujari, Shatrughan Tondse, Ravindra Mane, Vikas Suryavanshi, Tushar Khairnar, Satyajit Kamble with manufacturing evidence, criminal conspiracy, illegal arrest, and using physical violence in custody.
They were not charged with murder, however.
Leonard went to the court, appealing for murder charges to be added. It took years for his appeal to be heard, but in December 2019 the high court ordered the CBI to file murder charges against all the accused.
Yet, no action has been taken against the accused so far. They were suspended, only to be reinstated within two or three months.
So, Leonard’s campaign to get justice for his son continues.
“Even after the high court’s orders, nothing has been done against the guilty police personnel,” he told Newslaundry. “Maybe they aren’t being arrested because of the Covid pandemic. But I too will keep fighting till my last breath to get justice for my son.”
The police protect their own
In the Maharashtra police force, torture is an “accepted practice”, said Yug Mohit Chaudhry, a senior criminal lawyer based in Mumbai who represented Leonard Valdaris in court.
“Worse still, torture is institutionalised to the extent that torture implements are part of the armoury of every police station,” he said. “One of their favourite instruments is a broad leather belt that can be used to whip the victim, or tie him in uncomfortable positions. In the police force, the belt is referred to as satyashodhak patta, or the belt that makes you speak the truth.”
When a complaint of torture is made against a police personnel, Chaudhry said, the force “closes ranks and systematically aids and abets the destruction of evidence, the obtaining of perjured statements, the pressuring of victims to retract their comments, and the frustration of the complaint in general”.
“This is considered a duty a police officer owes his brothers in the force,” he explained. “Therefore, it is well nigh impossible to get a complaint of torture registered, investigated and successfully prosecuted.”
There there have been no successful prosecutions for torture in Maharashtra in the past 19 years, data from the home ministry indicates. “There are only a handful of registered cases,,” Chaudhry said, “even though Maharashtra has been consistently recording the highest number of custodial deaths in the country.”
Update: This piece has been updated to correct the spelling of Yug Mohit Chaudhry's name.
This is the second part of a multi-part series on custodial deaths in India. Read .
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