An examination of the digital evidence presented by the Pune Police in court against prominent human-rights activists accused in the Bhima Koregaon case has revealed several technical anomalies and clear procedural violations by the force. Last year, the Pune Police claimed it had discovered several damning letters on the computer hard drives it had seized from the human-rights lawyer Surendra Gadling and the prison-rights activist Rona Wilson. A close scrutiny of the documents disclosed the irregularities that raise serious questions about the Pune Police’s investigation in the case.
On the basis of these letters, the Pune Police claimed that the accused had been part of a Maoist conspiracy to “overthrow the government” as well as a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The letters were used to implicate other prominent individuals such as Sudha Bharadwaj, a Chattisgarsh-based lawyer; Shoma Sen, an English professor at Nagpur University; Sudhir Dhawale, a publisher; Varavara Rao, a poet; Arun Ferreira, a cartoonist; and activists such as Mahesh Raut and Vernon Gonsalvez. All nine individuals accused were placed under arrest.
The Caravan was able to conduct a close scrutiny of the documents and other forensic material of the case, which the Pune Police had presented to the court and supplied to the accused persons, as true copies of the purportedly incriminating files found on Gadling’s computer. A study of the documents, the metadata of the incriminating files, the chargesheet filed by the Pune Police and a report submitted by the Regional Forensic Science Laboratory, Pune, reveals many indications that the police may have used the devices while it had them in its custody, and may have edited files on them. The Information Technology Act, 2000, has laid down in detail the procedure that investigating agencies have to follow while dealing with digital evidence, which the police seem to have flouted blatantly.
Below are six discrepancies and procedural violations evident in the case made out by the Pune Police.
Files were edited while the evidence was under police custody
In its investigation, the Pune Police had relied on a letter that it claimed to have discovered on Gadling’s hard drive, titled “Dear Surendra.docx,” which was one among several letters it had released to the media around September 2018, before they were submitted in court. In the copy of the letter given to the media, the text had justified alignment. But when the accused individuals’ lawyers were provided a copy of it, in November 2018, the text was left aligned. As per legal procedure, the police is not supposed to use the device in any way. It has to create a bitstream image—a clone of the hard drive—for the purpose of studying the content. Any edits made by the police to the format or the content of the files would amount to tampering of evidence.