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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Kotkhai rape and murder case: Solved twice in 3 years, and now a fresh fight for justice

The 16-year-old victim’s family has now moved Himachal High Court seeking reopening of the case.

Shimla | October 19, 2020 1:41:59 am
Kotkhai rape and murder case, HImachal rape case, HImachal murder case, Himachal Pradesh High Court, Shimla news, Himachal news, Indian express newsA medal that the victim had won in her school. (Archive photos)

(Written by Gagan)

Last week, the mother of a 16-year-old girl, who was found raped and murdered in a forest in Shimla district in 2017, withdrew a criminal writ petition from the Supreme Court after it allowed her to approach the Himachal Pradesh High Court with her grievances.

Believing that more than one person was involved in the crime, the victim’s family, according to Shimla-based organisation Madad Seva Trust, has now approached the high court alleging some discrepancies in the investigation.

A look at the case over the years.

The incident

On the afternoon of July 4, 2017, a 16-year-old Class 10 student in Shimla’s Kotkhai area left her school but never reached home. Amidst an ongoing sports tournament in the school, her brother and other schoolmates who usually accompanied her stayed back and she decided to walk to her house alone – a 1.5-hour journey on foot, which included trekking through a forest.

Two days later, her body was found in a ditch in the forest, with her clothes, an empty liquor bottle, and some other items scattered around her. An autopsy indicated that she died due to the cumulative effect of “homicidal smothering and manual strangulation in a case of recent forcible penetrative sexual assault”. In layman’s language, she was raped and murdered.

The incident triggered massive protests and uproar in Kotkhai, Shimla and other parts of the hill state where crimes of such nature are rare.

First arrests

Around a week later, a special investigation team of the state police led by IG Zahur H Zaidi arrested six men residing in the area on charges of raping and killing the minor.

One of the accused, Suraj Singh, a 29-year-old labourer from Nepal, died while being interrogated at the Kotkhai police station during the intervening night of July 18 and 19. The police alleged that he was murdered by one of his co-accused.

The custodial death aggravated the ongoing public protests and speculations of an unfair investigation, triggering an outburst in Kotkhai and Theog the next morning. A mob burnt down the Kotkhai police station and vandalised police vehicles. The same day, the Himachal Pradesh High Court ordered the CBI to take over the case.

SIT Head Arrested

A few days later, the CBI was also tasked with investigating Suraj’s custodial death, in connection with which it arrested eight police officials, including IG Zaidi, in August 2017.

The case against them was eventually shifted to the CBI court in Chandigarh, where it is currently underway against nine people. Some of the police officials were granted bail by the Supreme Court last year, including IG Zaidi who was reinstated in the state police. Earlier this year, however, an SP from Himachal told the court that she was being pressured by Zaidi to change her statement. The court cancelled Zaidi’s bail, and he’s back behind the bars.

Meanwhile, charges in the case have been framed against the accused, and testimonies of witnesses are currently underway.

Investigation 2.0

The CBI found that the DNA of those already arrested did not match the reference DNA extracted from samples taken from the crime spot and the victim’s body in the rape and murder case, according to the agency’s chargesheet filed in the trial court.

The accused also underwent scientific tests such as polygraph, narco analysis and brain mapping at a forensic lab in Gujarat. According to the CBI, the involvement of the six people could not be established, and the five surviving accused were eventually discharged from the case.

Investigators then started afresh, tracing and questioning thousands of area residents, teachers and students at the victim’s school, family members, bus drivers, labourers and other people who happened to be living or working near the crime spot at the time of the incident. During this process, blood samples of 250 people were collected for DNA analysis.

Using advanced forensic techniques such as YSTR analysis of semen found at the spot, and acting on a lead from a source, CBI officials zeroed in on a woodcutter who had left the area after the crime. They traced his family in Kangra district, and collected his mother’s DNA, with forensics indicating that her biological child was the culprit.

But the suspect, Anil Kumar alias Nillu ‘Charani’, was missing and incommunicado, already having been declared a proclaimed offender in a past case. He was eventually arrested from an orchard in Shimla’s Hatkoti area in April 2018, following months of CDR surveillance and profile-building. According to the CBI, his DNA then matched with the reference DNA from the crime scene.

Chargesheet, Trial

According to the CBI’s chargesheet, on the day of the crime, Nillu consumed liquor in the afternoon and met the victim on a deserted path while she was on her way home. He first had an altercation with her, following which he caught and dragged her into the forest adjoining the path, where he raped, smothered and strangled her. He left the spot, but returned sometime later after purchasing liquor from someone’s house around 800 metres away. While leaving, he left behind the empty liquor bottle at the crime scene, which according to the CBI has been identified by the seller.

Several people who saw him in the area before and after the crime or sold liquor to him on the day of the crime have identified him, the chargesheet said. Other witnesses include a widow whom he allegedly sexually assaulted a-day-and-a-half after the murder. He also allegedly tried to steal someone’s clothes and molested another woman before leaving the area a few days later, the chargesheet said.

The case against Nillu is in its final arguments, with around 55 prosecution witnesses having deposed in-camera before a CBI court in Shimla.

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