The Karnataka High Court recently raised questions on why a Special Investigation Team of the state CID has not named a senior police officer in a Bitcoin scam-linked case. The HC raised the concern in the course of granting anticipatory bail to a police officer accused of embezzlement of Bitcoin from an arrested international hacker.

The Karnataka HC on Thursday granted anticipatory bail to Shridhar Pujar, an officer of the rank of deputy superintendent of police, who is among four police officers accused of holding the hacker Srikrishna Ramesh alias Sriki, 29, in illegal custody following his arrest in November 2020. The officers are also accused of giving the hacker illegal access to devices.

“There is no explanation as to why the joint commissioner is not made an accused in the present case,” the HC observed in its order for granting anticipatory bail to Deputy SP Pujar – after the Court was informed that the joint commissioner of police was part of a WhatsApp group of police officers where the efforts to appropriate Bitcoins from the hacker were discussed.

In the arguments in the HC on Thursday, the additional special public prosecutor told the HC that the case against the four former Bengaluru central crime branch police officers was essentially about the stealing of Bitcoins from the arrested hacker through the manipulation of the records of the cases. registered against the hacker and his associates in 2020.

The additional SPP told the Court that police officers facilitated the disappearance of 31 Bitcoins (valued at Rs 9 crore in 2021) that were deemed to have been seized from the hacker on January 8, 2021, through a mahazar process.

Festive offer

The additional SPP also told the Court that the SIT had unearthed the records of a police WhatsApp group titled ‘Hacking Group’ from the phone of one of the accused officers – which revealed information on efforts to illegally obtain Bitcoin from the arrested hacker by using the multiple hacking cases filed against him.

The HC was informed by the prosecution and the counsel for Shridhar Pujar that the then joint commissioner of police (crime) for Bengaluru city and the deputy commissioner of police (crime) were part of the WhatsApp group where the alleged conspiracy was charted.

“The additional SPP submitted that there was a WhatsApp group of which the petitioner was also a member in which the investigating officers of various criminal cases where Srikrishna alias Sriki was an accused and the text disclosed that the investigating officers including accused numbers 2 to 5 in the present case were actively involved in misappropriation as alleged,” the HC observed in its order on Thursday.

“However, it is pertinent to state that admittedly the joint commissioner of police is also a member of the group. He being a superior officer was an active member of the WhatsApp group and whatever chat was done by the petitioner and other investigators was under the very nose of the superior officer like the joint commissioner,” the HC said.

“There is no explanation as to why the joint commissioner is not made an accused in the present case,” the HC added.

The HC also referred to a press note issued by the Bengaluru city police commissioner on November 13, 2021, to state that no misappropriation of 31 seized Bitcoins had occurred and that the hacker had misled the police into believing he was in possession of the 31 Bitcoins. .

“It is pointed out by SPP that the circumstances under which the press note was released by the office of the commissioner of police of Bengaluru city is to be unearthed by investigating into the matter. The fact remains that the press note was issued on 13/11/2021 and till date no explanation or corrigendum was issued,” the HC said.

“Under these circumstances, I have serious doubts of serious lapses in the investigation that has been undertaken by the investigating officer of the present case. However, I do not find any justifiable reason to subject the petitioner to custodial interrogation,” the HC judge ruled while granting a conditional anticipatory bail plea to deputy SP Shridhar Pujar.

The HC was informed by the additional SPP that the joint commissioner of police (crime) is being investigated by the SIT based on emerging evidence.

The SIT has incidentally questioned a former head of the crime branch, Sandeep Patil, an IPS officer, on two occasions under whose supervision the Bengaluru central crime branch functioned in the 2020-21 period when the alleged Bitcoin scam occurred.

Background of the case

Earlier on May 24, the Supreme Court had stayed a May 2 order of the Karnataka High Court granting virtual anticipatory bail to Deputy SP Shridhar Pujar in the Bitcoin scam case.

The SIT approached the Supreme Court on May 15 after the HC on May 2 ordered the release of Pujar, on a surety of Rs two lakh at the end of a day of questioning – despite the officer not seeking bail in his petition in the HC.

The Deputy SP, who is a former Bengaluru crime branch inspector, and three of his former crime branch colleagues are among four police officers named by the SIT, along with a cyber expert, in an FIR alleging illegal confinement, breach of trust by a public servant, and destruction of evidence filed on January 24, 2024, in connection with the crime branch’s handling of cases following the arrest of hacker Srikrishna alias Sriki in November 2020.

Srikrishna, 29, was arrested again by the SIT on May 6 this year in connection with the June 2017 theft of 60.6 Bitcoins valued at Rs 1.14 crore in 2017 from a cryptocurrency exchange in Tumkur, Karnataka which was not prosecuted by the crime branch in 2020. .

The four former crime branch officers accused of wrongdoing in the cases filed in 2020 against the hacker are Shridhar Pujar (now a deputy SP), inspectors Prashanth Babu, Chandradhar SR and Lakshmikanthaiah along with private cyber expert KS Santhosh Kumar who assisted the probe in the hacker’s case in 2020.

The investigations in the case have found dozens of procedural lapses by the CCB in its probe against the hacker and his associates – including illegal detention, and no documentation of the logins, among others.

The handling of the cases involving the hacker by the police under the BJP regime in Karnataka after the arrests in November 2020 resulted in allegations of corruption by the Congress when it was in Opposition between 2020-2023.

The SIT was constituted by the Congress government on June 30, 2023, after it came to power, to probe the Bitcoin scam.

The hacker Sriki has said in police statements that are on record in charge sheets filed by the crime branch that he was forced to hand over all cryptocurrency in his possession to the police when he was in police custody between November 2020 and January 2021.