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A 40-year-old case came back to haunt a retired Kerala police officer Thursday when he was sentenced to life imprisonment by a CBI Special Court for killing a Maoist leader in cold blood and passing it off as a shootout.

Retired Inspector General of Police K. Lakshmana, now 74, was found guilty of murdering the Maoist leader – popularly known as ‘Naxal Varghese’ – by Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) special court judge S. Vijayakumar a day earlier.

Lakshmana, the second accused in the case, has been sent to the Central Jail in Thiruvananthapuram.

The case goes back 40 years to Feb 18, 1970, the day Lakshmana directed Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) constable Ramachandran Nair to shoot dead Varghese, who was in police custody, in Wayanad district.

Until Nair revealed the real story, it was believed that Varghese was killed in a shootout with police. The Maoist movement was very strong in Kerala at that time.

Nair, haunted by guilt, came out with the truth in 1998 and said he was asked to commit the crime and that there never was a police ‘encounter’ — the official euphemism for deaths in real and staged gunbattles.

After a series of petitions, the Kerala High Court asked the CBI to conduct a probe.

Nair later passed away. But clinching evidence for the CBI came when Nair’s colleague and retired constable A.K.M. Haneefa, who was a witness in the case, said Lakshmana was present at the spot when Varghese was shot dead.

The CBI court observed there was ample evidence to prove that Nair shot Varghese to death on the command of Lakshmana, who was an inspector then.

Lakshmana has been a controversial officer. He ran into trouble in the disappearence of engineering student Rajan, who was picked up by police during Emergency but was never seen again. After a long drawn legal battle, Lakshmana was exonerated in the case.

A. Joseph, Varghese’s brother, said he was happy that truth had triumphed.

However, a third accused in the case, former director general of police P. Vijayan, was given the benefit of doubt by the court and exonerated.

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