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‘Unexplained, gross delay’: Why HC commuted Gavit sisters’ death sentences

The sisters were convicted of kidnapping 13 children, killing five of them, and using the others as cover to snatch purses and chains between 1990 and 1996.

Written by Omkar Gokhale , Sushant Kulkarni , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai, Pune |
Updated: January 21, 2022 7:04:36 am
Renuka Shinde and Seema Gavit (Express Archives)

Over 25 years after their arrests, two decades after their conviction, and nearly eight years after the President of India rejected their mercy petitions, Bombay High Court on Tuesday (January 18) commuted the death sentences awarded to two sisters, Renuka Shinde and Seema Gavit, to life imprisonment.

The sisters were convicted of kidnapping 13 children, killing five of them, and using the others as cover to snatch purses and chains between 1990 and 1996.

Half sisters Renuka Shinde and Seema Gavit, and their late mother Anjana

The two half sisters Renuka Shinde and Seema Gavit and their late mother Anjana, were habitual offenders. Police investigations at the time revealed that they would kidnap children from various places, and used them as bait to divert the attention of people before stealing — or used the children as distraction after getting caught while stealing.

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They were charged with 13 kidnappings of children, the murders of nine of them, and the attempted kidnapping of one more child, all between June 1990 and October 1996.

In November 1996, Anjana, Renuka and Seema were arrested along with Renuka’s husband Kiran Shinde, who later turned an approver in the case.

In 1998, Anjana died in prison of an illness. She was 50 years old at the time, and the trial was yet to begin.

The two half sisters were sentenced to death in 2001 by a court in Kolhapur for the kidnapping and murders of six of the children. The High Court upheld their sentence for five murders.

In 2006, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence and in 2014, their mercy petition made to the President was rejected.

Anjana had started committing petty street thefts by using her daughters as bait or distraction for the victims. They kept moving from place to place, including Nashik, Kolhapur, Thane, Kalyan, and Pune.

Most of the cases were registered in Kolhapur, where they were later tried in the sessions court. Investigations revealed that the trio committed their first murder, of a boy, after hitting him against a pole to injure him and divert attention after one of the daughters was caught stealing.

How the law caught up with the sisters and their mother

Anjana, Seema, Renuka, and Kiran were arrested in Nashik for the kidnapping of a girl, who was the daughter of one of Anjana’s two husbands from his other marriage. This was the starting point of the probe from where the investigators traced back their crimes committed in the past.

Police officers who probed the case at the time believed that the numbers of kidnappings and murders could have been more than what the suspects came to be prosecuted for. It was suspected that the number of children they kidnapped at various places could be more than 40.

However, in the absence of electronic clues that are available today, police could get prosecutable evidence for only some of them.

After an initial probe, the case was taken over by the state Criminal Investigation Department. Suhas Nadgauda, who is currently posted as Additional Superintendent of Police with the Anti Corruption Bureau in Pune, was a member of the investigating team for the case.

Speaking to Express, Nadgauda said, “While the crimes first came to light in Nashik, probe had revealed that they had started the kidnapping and murders from Kolhapur. It was an extensive probe spread over multiple places. During the trial, 156 prosecution witnesses were examined and the Special Public Prosecutor Ujwal Nikam argued that it was the rarest of the rare crimes.”

The probe had revealed that most of the children who were kidnapped and murdered by Anjana and her daughters were from poor families.

How the case progressed in courts over two decades

The sisters were convicted by the sessions court in Kolhapur in June 2001 for kidnappings and murders of six of the children.

The High Court upheld their conviction in September 2004 for five murders. While confirming the death sentence, the High Court found no mitigating circumstances, nor any material that the petitioners could be reformed or introduced in society as responsible citizens.

The Supreme court, in August, 2006, dismissed their appeals and confirmed their death sentence for five murders. The apex court observed that there were no circumstances in favour of the petitioners, and that they were a menace to society.

In August 2014, then President Pranab Mukherjee rejected their mercy pleas, after which the sisters moved the High Court seeking judicial review of the President’s decision and sought a reduction in the sentence.

They prayed for commutation of their sentence to life imprisonment, stating that there had been an “inordinate delay” of eight years in deciding on their mercy pleas, and the execution of their death sentences.

The Maharashtra Home Department on August 20, 2014 made a statement before the HC that it would not execute the death sentence while the writ filed by the two women was pending.

What the Bombay High Court ruled while commuting the sentences

After concluding the hearing on December 22 last year, a division bench of Justice Nitin M Jamdar and Justice Sarang V Kotwal of the Bombay HC on Tuesday ordered the commutation of the death sentences, and cancelled and set aside the warrant to execute the death penalty.

The court pulled up the state for the “unexplained, gross delay” in disposing of the sisters’ mercy petitions, and said that “due to the casual approach of officers of state, mercy pleas were not decided for seven years, 10 months and 15 days, between 2006 and 2014”.

“Though the procedure for deciding the mercy petitions mandates speed and expediency, the state machinery showed indifference and laxity at each stage of processing the files. That it took seven years only for the movement of files for such a grave issue is unacceptable when electronic communications were available to be used,” it said.

However, the court added that while it acceded to the prayer for commutation of death sentence to life, it could not accept the request for releasing the convicts, who have completed 25 years in prison, forthwith — and that such relief can be granted by the competent authority of the state in the form of remitting the remaining sentence.

The bench noted that the crimes committed by the petitioners were “heinous” and the “brutality shown by them in murdering innocent children is beyond words to condemn”.

But at the same time, the HC held that the fundamental right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 extends till the stage of execution of the sentence, and said that prolonged delay in the same has a “dehumanizing effect”.

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