A close relative of Bandra acid attack victim Preeti Rathi and an eyewitness to the incident on Tuesday identified Ankur Panwar, 25, as the man who attacked Rathi, at the city civil and sessions court.
Asked whether the attacker was present in the courtroom by special public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam, the witness parted a cloth curtain in the witness box that obstructed his view of those in attendance, looked around for a few seconds, before pointing a finger at Panwar, who was seated on the wooden bench in the rear right corner of the room.
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Panwar, a graduate in hotel management, is accused of flinging acid at Rathi on May 2, 2013, at the Bandra Railway Terminus and fleeing from the spot. Rathi (25) was on her way to the naval hospital INHS Asvini, where she had been selected to work in a nursing position as a lieutenant. While Rathi passed away at Bombay Hospital a month later, Panwar was arrested from his home in New Delhi’s Narela locality in January 2014 by the Mumbai Police Crime Branch.
Panwar was the second accused in the case after Rathi’s neighbour Pawankumar Gahalon was arrested by the Mumbai Railway Police weeks after the attack but discharged in 2014, after no evidence was found to link him to the crime.
The witness, who is 44-year- old, had travelled with his wife, Rathi and Rathi’s father to Mumbai in 2013 and had run a short distance after the attacker after the incident but was unable to catch him.
The witness told the court that he had earlier on February 12, 2014, identified Panwar from among six other similarly aged and built men during a test identification parade at Arthur Road Jail.
Nikam, who examined the witness, asked to him recount what had happened during the train journey between New Delhi and Mumbai on May 2, 2013. The witness told Judge S M Shende that he had spotted Panwar near one of the train’s bathrooms. “At 4.30 am, I got off from my seat and walked to the bathroom near the engine, but there were a few people sleeping on the floor and turned back,” the witness said.
He then turned back and walked towards the bathrooms located at the other end of the corridor and saw a man leaning against the door of the one of the bathrooms. “He seemed to be aged between 20 and 25 years, between five feet two inches and five feet three inches tall and was wearing a yellow shirt. He was also carrying a bag,” he said.
The witness told the court that he had a brief verbal exchange with the man. “I asked why he was standing there and told him to go sit inside. He replied, “Bore ho gaya tha, toh bahar aa gaya”. (I was bored, so I came out),” he said.
The man then asked the witness where he was going, and the witness said he would alight at Bandra terminus. “Then I asked him where he was going and the man said, Gaadi jahan tak jayegi wahan tak jaunga (I will go as far as the train does),” the witness said.
At 8 am, when the train reached Bandra Terminus, the witness said he was walking a few paces behind Rathi when the attack occurred.
“I saw that a man wearing a white cap and with his face covered with a scarf, had hurled something out of a box onto Rathi’s face. “I ran a few steps after the man when he turned around. His scarf slipped off his face and I realised he was the same man who I was speaking to on the train,” the witness said, adding that he gave up running after him when he heard Rathi screaming.
“She was covered from face to neck in some acidic substance and her skin was burned.” the witness added. That was the last he saw of the attacker, he said.
The witness’ cross-examination by Panwar’s lawyer Prakash Vare was brief and came after Panwar told Judge Shende that he had no faith in Vare, who had been appointed by the court as his legal help. Vare asked the witness about his relations with Rathi’s family and the number of times he visited them annually. The witness also told the court that he had been informed of Rathi’s death by her father and only went to their home the day her body was brought back home from Mumbai.
The cross-examination was to continue after lunch but during the interim, Panwar hired advocate Apeksha Vora, relieving Vare.
The cross-examination did not resume as Vora requested for time to study the case. Judge Shende adjourned the matter to September 10, when three more key witnesses will be examined.