A sessions court in Kerala on Wednesday (August 10) ordered CBI to further investigate the alleged sexual assault and death of two minor Dalit sisters in Walayar, Palakkad, and file a report. The mother of the siblings told reporters that she wanted a new team of the CBI to carry out the investigation, PTI reported.
The girls, ages 9 and 13, were found hanging in their hut a few weeks apart in early 2017. The police concluded that the girls had died by suicide after having been sexually abused over a period of several months. The girls’ mother alleged that the victims had been murdered.
In September and October 2019, a special POCSO court acquitted four accused. Following appeals by the state government and the girls’ mother, the High Court ordered a retrial in January 2021, and the government handed over the investigation to the CBI.
However, in its chargesheet filed before the POCSO court in December 2021, the CBI echoed the police’s finding that the girls had killed themselves following prolonged sexual abuse.
What happened in 2017?
On January 13, 2017, the older sister, age 13, was found hanging inside the family’s one-room home in Walayar, a region on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, by her younger sister, age 9. The minor told police that she had seen two men leaving the house that day, with their faces covered.
Police registered a case of unnatural death, even though the parents of the children, who were both construction labourers, alleged that their daughter had been murdered.
Fifty-two days later, on March 4, the younger sibling was also found hanging from the same rafter in the family’s hut. Following protests by the family and residents of the village, police arrested five persons, including a juvenile.
Autopsies on both bodies had confirmed that the minors were subjected to sexual assault before their deaths. The accused were charged under stringent provisions of the POCSO Act for rape and abetting suicide.
What did the victims’ family say?
The mother of the two girls had consistently pointed to lapses in the police investigation, and alleged there was interference at local political levels, leading to the accused escaping action. She alleged that the police had twisted her statement in the complaint, and instead used their own words.
She refuted claims that she had secretly confirmed to police that her daughters may have chosen to kill themselves in order to escape repeated sexual assault.
“I have not said so. The police tried to make us believe that they committed suicide. Those are the words of the police. Then and now, I don’t believe my daughters took their own lives. They don’t have the intelligence to do such a thing. They are not tall enough to kill themselves like that. They were killed. The younger girl was an eye-witness to two men leaving the home after killing the older one. That’s why the younger one was killed too,” the girls’ mother had told iemalayalam.com in late 2019.
The police, she alleged, had not been impartial, and had betrayed the family’s trust. “Only when the case reached the court did we realise that whatever we said (to police) never made it (to their report). They wrote whatever they deemed fit. The CBI must re-investigate the case. I will make this demand when I meet the Chief Minister,” she had said at the time.
What did the POCSO court find?
The September 30, 2019 judgment by Additional Sessions Judge Muralee Krishna S indicated that the prosecution could not bring strong evidence against the accused Pradeep Kumar, who lived near the victims’ family, and was known to them.
“I have no hesitation to hold that the prosecution has miserably failed to prove the alleged offences against the accused beyond reasonable doubt,” the judge noted.
The court also found that there were contradictions in the depositions of the two prosecution witnesses. A statement by one of the witnesses in court that the accused had given the older minor a cell-phone to click his nude pictures was not found in her police statement.
The judgment also noted that there was no scientific evidence that could connect the accused to the offences mentioned in the chargesheet. The statement by the forensic surgeon who had carried out the post mortem examination of the older girl, that the victim’s anal injuries could be due to piles infection, went in favour of the accused.
Subsequently, on October 25, 2019, three other persons were also acquitted.
What happened thereafter?
There was widespread public outrage, and protests by the Congress, BJP, and even the CPI, a member of the ruling LDF regime in the state. There were demands from the opposition as well as from the victim’s family for a probe by the CBI.
The government replaced N Rajesh, chairman of the Child Welfare Committee in Palakkad, who had ironically enough, appeared as a lawyer earlier for one of the accused. The rape and acquittal echoed in the state Assembly, with opposition MLAs slamming the government for the manner in which the police had handled the case.
Ultimately, the High Court ordered a retrial, and the government called in the CBI.