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Police in the eastern Indian state of Orissa (also called Odisha) have arrested a man wanted in a notorious 1999 gang rape. The accused hid in plain sight for more than two decades – until a few days ago when his luck ran out.
When police approached Bibekananda Biswal’s home last week in Pune district in the western state of Maharashtra, they say he tried to run away.
“He saw the team coming and tried to escape. When he was caught, he told them, ‘Take me away from here, I’ll tell you everything’,” senior Orissa police official Sudhanshu Sarangi told the BBC.
Bibekananda Biswal was among three men accused in the brutal gang rape of a 29-year-old woman on the night of 9 January 1999. He denies the allegations against him.
The other two men – Pradeep Kumar Sahu and Dhirendra Mohanty – were arrested, tried, convicted of rape and sentenced to life in jail. Sahu died in prison last year.
The attack and the uproar
The woman was travelling from the state capital, Bhubaneswar, to its twin city Cuttack, with a journalist friend and her driver when their car was intercepted by three men travelling on a scooter.
The attackers forced them to drive at gunpoint to a secluded area where, according to court documents, she was assaulted multiple times over four hours. She and her friend were threatened and beaten up and their money and valuables were snatched.
The crime made headlines and shook the state not only for the brutality of the attack but also because of the serious allegations the survivor made against some important people, including the then Orissa chief minister JB Patnaik.
She accused him of trying to shield an official against whom she had lodged a complaint of attempted rape 18 months earlier. She alleged that the two had “a role” in her gang rape to “scare me into withdrawing my charges against the official”.
Mr Patnaik said her accusations were part of “a political conspiracy”. A month later when the chief minister resigned, newspapers said the mishandling of the case was a major reason for his exit. A year later, the official was convicted of attempted rape and jailed for three years.
India’s federal police – the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – were called in to inquire into the gang rape case.
But Bibekananda Biswal – described in the court order as “the main accused, the mastermind” who had “raped and ravished the victim mercilessly” – had disappeared without a trace.
The case went cold, and the files lay gathering dust in a police station in Cuttack.
‘Operation Silent Viper’
In November, Mr Sarangi was visiting Choudwar jail in connection with another case where he had a “chance meeting” with Mohanty, one of the rapists.
“While talking to him, I discovered that one of his co-accused had never been caught. The next day, when I got back to my office, I recalled the case files,” Mr Sarangi told me.
“When I read the details of the case, I felt he must be caught. It was a most heinous crime.”
Mr Sarangi, who’s the police commissioner for the state capital, Bhubaneswar, and its twin city Cuttack, reopened the case and gave it a code name – “Operation Silent Viper”.
“A viper can blend in with its surroundings, not make any noises to avoid detection. So, I thought it was the perfect name for this operation since he hadn’t been caught for 22 years,” he says.
A four-member police team was formed – they were the only people who knew about the case “to avoid any information leak”.
How did they find the suspect?
“On 19 February, at 5:30pm, I was sure we had the right man. Just after 7pm, three of my officers were on a flight to Pune,” Mr Sarangi says.
“A joint team of Orissa and Maharashtra police carried out the raid the next day and he was arrested.”
It had taken police three months of information gathering and meticulous planning to find the man they were after.
“Once we started investigating, we heard that he’d been in touch with his family, his wife and two sons. He was caught when the family tried to sell a piece of land that was in his name,” Mr Sarangi told the BBC.