Pathankot: A court on Monday sentenced three men including a temple caretaker to life imprisonment till last breath for the gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old nomadic girl in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir shortly after convicting them along with three others for the ghastly crime that shook the nation 17 months ago.
Sanji Ram, the mastermind and caretaker of the 'devasthanam' (temple) where the crime took place in January last year, Deepak Khajuria, a Special Police Officer, and Parvesh Kumar, a civilian--the three main accused--were spared death penalty, a punishment sought by the prosecution during the year-long in-camera trial in the court of judge Tejwinder Singh here.
The three were convicted under Ranbir Penal Code(RPC) sections relating to criminal conspiracy, murder, kidnapping, gang rape, destruction of evidence, drugging the victim and common intention, prosecution lawyer Santokh Singh told reporters outside the court.
They were also awarded different jail terms for various offences under the RPC which will run concurrently with the life term besides a fine of Rs one lakh each, Singh said. If they do not deposit the fine, they will have to serve additional six months in jail, he added.
Singh said a life term means they will be in jail till the end of their natural life.
The other three accused--Sub Inspector Anand Dutta, Head Constable Tilak Raj and special police officer Surender Verma -- were convicted for destruction of evidence to cover up and handed down five years in jail and Rs 50,000 fine each, Singh said.
The court acquitted the seventh accused Vishal Jangotra, son of Sanji Ram, giving him the 'benefit of doubt', according to Mubeen Farooqi, who represented the victim's family in the court.
The court pronounced the much-awaited verdict away from the gaze of media which gathered in full strength outside the premises. All the 7 accused were present in the court room.
According to eyewitness accounts from inside the courtroom, where the media was barred, Ram and Khajuria reacted with shock when the operative part of the verdict was read out by the judge. Some family members of the two men collapsed in the court complex on hearing the news of them being sent to jail for life.
A 15-page charge sheet filed in April last year said the eight-year-old girl was kidnapped on January 10 that year and was raped in captivity in a small village temple, exclusively manned by Ram, after keeping her sedated for four days. She was later bludgeoned to death, it said.
The crime branch of J&K Police had filed the charge sheet against eight persons, including a juvenile.
The trial against the juvenile is yet to begin as his petition on determining his age is to be heard by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court.
The prosecution team, comprising lawyers J K Chopra, S S Basra, Harminder Singh and Bhupinder Singh, said it demanded capital punishment for the main accused and may go in for appeal against the sole acquittal.
National Commission for Women(NCW) Chairperson Rekha Sharma welcomed the conviction but said she was expecting capital punishment for all the six convicts. She said the state government should appeal in higher court.
The day-to-day trial commenced in the first week of June last year at the district and sessions court in Pathankot in the neighbouring state of Punjab, about 100 km from Jammu and 30 km from Kathua, after the Supreme Court ordered on May 7, 2018 that the case be shifted out of J and K.
The apex court order came after lawyers in Kathua prevented Crime Branch officials from filing a charge sheet in the sensational case.
The Crime Branch held Ram, his juvenile nephew and his son Vishal, and two SPOs Khajuria and Verma. Raj and Dutta, who allegedly took Rs 4 lakh from Ram and destroyed crucial evidence, were later arrested.
The charges of rape and murder were framed by the district and sessions judge against seven of the eight accused.
The court framed charges under relevant sections of the RPC including Sections 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 302 (murder) and 376-D (gang-rape), according to the prosecution.
The court also framed charges of destruction of evidence and causing hurt by poisoning under Section 328 of the RPC.
All the accused, barring the juvenile, were shifted to the Gurdaspur jail in Punjab following an intervention by the Supreme Court which also restricted appearance of the defence lawyers and limited it to one or maximum of two per accused.
The charge sheet said the girl had gone missing while grazing horses.
Investigators said the accused juvenile had abducted the girl on the pretext of helping her find her horses.
The abduction, rape and killing of the child was part of a carefully planned strategy to remove the minority nomadic community from the area, the charge sheet said.
The horrific crime also led to tensions in the then PDP-BJP coalition government headed by Mehbooba Mufti. Two BJP ministers--Chandra Prakash Ganga and Lal Singh-- had to quit for their open support to the accused.
Former J and K chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti hailed the court order and hit out at state BJP leaders.
"Amen to that. The guilty deserve the most severe punishment possible under law. And to those politicians who defended the accused, vilified the victim & threatened the legal system no words of condemnation are enough," Abdullah tweeted.
"Welcome the judgement. High time we stop playing politics over a heinous crime where an 8 year old child was drugged, raped repeatedly & then bludgeoned to death. Hope loopholes in our judicial system are not exploited & culprits get exemplary punishment," Mehbooba tweeted.