Mumbai, 29 April, 2015: Can the Police Cybercrime Cell target you for filing an online complaint on the Anti Corruption Bureau? Can Anti Curruption Bureau (ACB) pass on information about your online complaint to the Cybercrime Cell? Isn't ACB supposed to treat such complaints as confidential and investigate the subject of the complaint, rather than turning the spotlight on the complainant himself? On 14 Jan, 2015, Dr Mahesh A Deshmukh, MD, Fellow Rheumatology, based in Nanded, Maharashtra, received a call from Mr. Harshal Chavan, Assistant Sub Inspector (ASI), Office of the Superintendent of Police, asking him to come along with his wife to the SP's office the next morning, regarding a complaint of cybercrime against him. What followed was a harrowing three-week experience of repeatedly being called, "interrogated" and blackmailed for Rs 35,000 by the ASI with the connivance of a conman named Praveen Kumar Khandewal. Throughout this three-week nightmare, there was a continuous pressure on Dr Deshmukh to withdraw or water-down a complaint that he had made in August 2014 on ACB's portal. This happened with the cooperation of the designated Public Information Officer and possibly other office staff also at the SP's office. The IGP's office in Aurangabad may also have been part of this crime-ring.
The doctor was "interrogated" for an undisclosed complaint against him; he was denied a copy of the complaint against him even under Right to Information! The harassment abruptly stopped on 9 February, a couple of days after Praveen Kumar Khandewal was nabbed by police (see http://tinyurl.com/Fake-IPS-Officer-nabbed ). Mr Harshal Chavan, however, continues to be scot-free.
In a complaint letter dated 17 April, 2015 to Maharashtra Home Department and police higher-ups, Dr Mahesh Deshmukh describes the scam: http://tinyurl.com/Dr-Deshmukh-Complaint
"Mr. Chavan asked me whether I was in Nagpur on 7 August 2014; I said yes. He asked my room number. I told him I didn’t remember. Then he told me it was room no 716 room of Radisson Blu hotel of Nagpur, and that he had each and every detail and CCTV footage of my activities during my stay at this hotel. My wife was sitting next to me, and he repeated many times that he had CCTV footage of all my activities during my stay at Radisson Blu Nagpur, implying that my activities were illegitimate. I made it clear that I was alone all the time, and I had not engaged in any activity for which I should feel ashamed or afraid.
"Mr. Chavan made an allegation that during my stay, I acted as an imposter for someone else (i.e. I pretended to be someone else) on the internet and lodged a complaint on the portal of Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB), and that the complaint was false, and therefore, ACB people had asked him to find out who had done it. He alleged that due to this particular complaint, there was harassment of some people and there was misuse of government machinery due to that “false complaint”. Mr. Chavan told me that he had all the digital records which proved that I used the hotel WIFI for lodging that particular complaint and he also had router details. He told me that he got all the details from Delhi. He showed me his laptop screen which had a diagram, which, according to him was digital evidence... necessary proof against me.
"He brought a small book and showed it to both of us, saying that according to law, he had to book me for cyber crime, and if I admitted guilt, then he would talk to senior officers and will see how he could help out, but he did not guarantee anything.
"Then he told me that if I gave in writing that I mistakenly complained, or inadvertently posted a draft of the complaint, then that also would be sufficient for him to help me out. During my wife’s interrogation, my wife was crying most of the time as he told us that we have committed a cybercrime by imposing someone. He also said that as that particular complaint made from the hotel room contained official secrets, I may be booked under Official Secrets Act also, and therefore my wife's job may be in jeopardy.
"At the end of this interrogation on 15 January, Mr. Harshal Chavan asked me whether we knew anyone in police department. I told him that I knew one person who said he was from the police force. Mr. Harshal Chavan asked me to call him and discuss this matter in front of him. I called my contact, Mr. Praveen Kumar Khandewal on mobile and told him what was going on. Then Mr. Harshal Chavan also talked with Mr. Praveen Kumar Khandewal on phone and told him that if we give him in writing what he asked, then there should be no problem."
SOME CRUCIAL QUESTIONS:
- If this sort of cat-and-mouse game is played by a low-ranking ASI – just a notch above head-constable -- think about what sort of harassment must be meted out to unsuspecting citizens by cops who are placed higher up in the hierarchy! Everybody knows that the aam aadmi isn't safe... but is even an educated and influential citizen safe from blackmail by criminal-minded cops?
- Anti Corruption Bureau conducts campaigns and publicly urges citizens to make complaints of corruption on its web portal and helplines. But if you and I trust ACB's campaigns and lodge a complaint, will we be treated with respect? Or will we be at the receiving end of such harassment and blackmail by cops?
For more details, mediapersons may contact Dr Mahesh Deshmukh on 07588584112 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the other side of the story (assuming there is one), journalists and police higher-ups are also encouraged to call ASI Harshal Chavan 9821779921.
ISSUED IN PUBLIC INTEREST BY
RTI Activist & Journalist, Mumbai