Seventeen months after the kidnapping, gangrape and murder of a minor girl in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir stunned the nation, the Pathankot district and sessions court, where the trial was transferred on the directions of the Supreme Court, held six men guilty in the case Monday.
It sentenced three men, accused of rape and murder among other charges, to life imprisonment, and three policemen to five years for destruction of evidence, observing that “the perpetrators of this crime have acted in such a manner as if there is a ‘law of the jungle’ prevalent in society”.
A seventh accused, the son of the main conspirator, was acquitted while the eight accused, a juvenile, is being proceeded against separately.
Sessions court judge Dr Tejwinder Singh recalled a Mirza Ghalib couplet from a Supreme Court ruling to describe the plight of the victim: “Pinha tha daam-e-sakht qareeb aashiyaan ke, Udhne na paye the ki giraftar hum hue… (near the nest of a bird there was a hard net (placed by hunter) and the young chick was caught in it before it could take its first flight).”
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According to police, the minor girl disappeared on January 10, 2018. She was kidnapped, held captive in a prayer hall where she was sedated and repeatedly raped. Her body was found seven days later in a forest.
The judge sentenced Sanji Ram, a former revenue official, Parvesh Kumar alias Mannu and Deepak Khajuria, a Special Police Officer, under Ranbir Penal code sections 120B (criminal conspiracy) for life, 302 (murder) for life, 363 (kidnapping) for seven years, 328 (causing hurt by means of poison etc) for 10 years, 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence) for five years, 343 (wrongful confinement) for two years and 376D (gangrape) for 25 years. The sentences, the judge said, shall run concurrently.
Sub Inspector Anand Dutta, SPO Surinder Kumar and Head Constable Tilak Raj were sentenced to five years imprisonment under RPC section 201 for destruction of evidence.
“Where there is nothing on record which could show that accused SI Anand Dutta, HC Tilak Raj and SPO Surinder Kumar were part of criminal conspiracy right from the beginning. As per evidence on record, they have tried to cause disappearance of evidence… with an intention to screen the main offenders… from the legal punishment in this case, by washing away the blood stained clothes of victim, concealing the ‘dupatta’ (chunni), hair band and necklace of victim and by giving false information regarding the place of occurrence,” the order stated.
The seventh accused, Sanji Ram’s son Vishal Jangotra, was acquitted of the charge of rape. The prosecution had claimed that he was specially called from his college in Meerut to rape the victim in captivity, and that he had created an alibi “by resorting to manipulation of records and creation of false evidence with the connivance and assistance of his father” and others.
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The order stated “his ‘plea of alibi’ is accepted by the court” as the evidence brought on record “categorically proves the fact that the accused Vishal Jangotra during the days of occurrence was not present in Kathua (J&K) rather he was present in Meeranpur, Muzaffarnagar (UP) and was appearing for the examinations”
According to police, the rape and murder of the minor girl was aimed at “dislodging” the nomadic Bakarwal Muslim community from a village in Kathua district. Even as the case sparked outrage, a group called Hindu Ekta Manch was formed in Jammu to back the accused, and this led to the case being given a communal twist. Two BJP ministers of the then J&K government had backed the Manch, coming out in support of the accused.
The trial was shifted to Pathankot on the orders of the Supreme Court after a group of lawyers attempted to prevent the submission of the chargesheet before the trial court. The in-camera trial, which started May 31, 2018 in Pathankot, concluded on June 6 this year after nearly 240 hearings.
The prosecution produced 114 witnesses in support of its case while the defence team brought 14 witnesses. The investigation was conducted by an SIT of the J&K Police Crime Branch.
The J&K government had asked Gurdaspur-based senior lawyer Santokh Singh Basra and Pathankot district attorney Jagdishwar Kumar Chopra to appear for the prosecution side while the accused were represented by at least 47 lawyers.