Justice delayed, but not denied

Print edition : August 03, 2002

Stiff judicial verdicts in two sensational criminal cases which saw protracted proceedings, occasions a collective sigh of relief in Kerala.

AFTER winding trials, further suffering for the families of victims, legal wrangles and political controversies, two separate courts in Kerala have come down heavily on the accused in two cases that had rocked the State's society and politics in a manner that is unprecedented in recent times.

One was the July 13 verdict of a Special Court in the final phase of the trial in the 'Suryanelli sex-racket case', which was the first in a series of such scandals that shook Kerala since the mid-1990s. The other was the July 16 verdict of the Additional Sessions Court, Kollam in the case relating to the Kalluvathukkal liquor tragedy, the latest in a series of major illicit liquor tragedies that have occurred in Kerala.

The Suryanelli scandal, which came to light in 1996, involved the abduction and sexual assault of a minor by 42 men in a span of 40 days. The 16-year-old school student from Suryanelli in Idukki district was enticed, threatened, abducted and sexually exploited by a bus conductor on January 16, 1996. Subsequently, she was transferred to the custody of two other persons, one of whom was a woman and another an advocate. The duo presented her to several men, including prominent persons, in various places in Kerala. Terrorised, shocked and ill, she was on February 26 asked by her captors to go home. They gave her a small amount of money and threatened her with dire consequences if she told anyone about what had happened.

The young woman's story shocked Kerala, but what followed soon after was not quite justice, but harassment and social ostracism. She and her family members were reportedly told by the local police not to be too hopeful about finding the culprits. The investigation was inordinately delayed and in the name of identifying the culprits the young woman was paraded all over the State by the police. The local media came in for criticism for its unsympathetic portrayal of her ordeal. In the 1996 Assembly elections, the Opposition Left Democratic Front made the scandal one of its campaign issues, especially in view of allegations that one of the men guilty was a prominent ruling party politician (eventually, however, his name did not figure in the charge-sheet for want of evidence).

In 1999, under public pressure, the LDF government set up the State's first-ever Special Court to try a case of sexual assault. A serious inquiry conducted by a team led by Inspector-General of Police Sibi Mathew brought the culprits to book.

On September 6, 2000, the Special Court sentenced 35 persons to rigorous imprisonment for varying terms. The first accused, conductor Raju, and second accused, Usha, were sentenced to 13 years of rigorous imprisonment with fine and an additional jail term of four years on different counts. Four of the accused were let off. Two others, including the key accused, advocate S.S. Dharmarajan, were absconding during the first phase of the trial.

A week after the Special Court delivered its judgment, the Kerala High Court granted bail to all the accused after taking into account the delay in transferring the case to the High Court for appeal. Dharmarajan was subsequently captured by the police and initially the High Court granted him bail. His trial at the Special Court began in January 2002. On July 13, Special Court Judge V. Chandrasekharan Nair sentenced Dharamarajan to life imprisonment.

In what has been termed as a landmark judgment, the Special Court extended the maximum punishment to Dharmarajan under Section 376 (rape), and Section 376(2)(g) (gang rape) of the Indian Penal Code and observed that it decided not to add any terms of imprisonment for additional charges of conspiracy, kidnapping and so on for which he was found to be guilty. The court said that the accused was a 'hardened criminal' and that his act of ravaging the life of a docile teenage girl was "so devilish" that he deserved no leniency.

The court pointed out that without considering the victim's tender age and her health the accused used her to satiate his lust and that as a lawyer he should have known the ramifications of his "gruesome criminal act". What had occurred was not only a crime against the victim but also a violation of the moral habits of society, the court said, and termed it as being among the rarest of rare cases where the maximum sentence provided by the law should apply. In doing so, the court had rejected the plea for a lesser sentence for Dharmarajan, since the maximum sentence awarded to many of the co-accused earlier during the first part of the trial was 13 years of rigorous imprisonment.

Of the 43 persons who were originally accused in the case, one person died during the investigation and two others including Dharmarajan were absconding during the initial stages. While Dharmarajan was captured by the police from a remote quarry, 'Elite' Rajan, the 41st accused, continues to be a proclaimed absconder. Two of the accused remain unidentified.

ON July 16, the Kollam Additional Sessions Court's verdict in the Kalluvathukkal-Pallikkal-Pallippuram liquor tragedy case, in which 39 persons had lost their lives in October 2000, after consuming spurious liquor from various illicit outlets in the southern districts of Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram, attracted widespread attention.

Additional Sessions Judge K. Chandradasan Nadar awarded rigorous imprisonment for life and fine to 13 of the 26 persons convicted in the case. They included the key accused, rags-to-riches liquor contractor Chandradas alias Manichan, illicit liquor vendor and repeat-offender Hyrunnissa alias Thatha, Manichan's brothers and illicit liquor suppliers Manikandan alias Kochani and Vinod. The court also imposed a total of Rs.1.17 crores as fine on the accused, which amount is to be provided as damages to the victims.

The accused were sentenced under various provisions of the IPC, including Sections 120(B) (conspiracy), 115 (abetment of offences punishable with death or life), 302 (murder), 324 (simple hurt), 326 (grievous hurt), 328 (causing hurt by poison, etc), 201 (causing disappearance of evidence) and 224 (resistance or obstruction by a person to his lawful apprehension) and under provisions of the Kerala Abkari Act that deals with the sale and manufacture of illicit liquor and adulteration of liquor with noxious substances. Manichan was convicted to 43 years of imprisonment over and above the life sentence; the sentences would run concurrently. He was also fined Rs.30.45 lakhs. The judge also made it clear, citing a Supreme Court ruling, that the life-term awarded to the 13 would mean "life-long imprisonment" unless the government gave a remission.

THE verdicts in the two cases have come as a relief to many people and these are being seen as having asserted the people's faith in the judiciary. But the twin cases may well be the tip of a huge malaise that seems to have afflicted Kerala society. Several sex racket cases have been unearthed in various parts of the State after Suryanelli, the most notorious being the Kozhikode ice cream parlour case, in which a number of young women were trapped and sexually exploited in a racket which allegedly involved some prominent politicians. Another is the Pandalam case, where five college teachers exploited a graduate student for over two months. In the Vithura case, a minor girl was raped by several persons.

In the Suryanelli case, a key factor in the judgment of the Special Court was its criticism of some of the police personnel involved in the initial stages of the inquiry, especially some of the officers at the police station in Munnar, where the victim's parents had first lodged a complaint. The Special Court said that not only did the police personnel not conduct a proper inquiry but they tried to protect the culprits. (The case was transferred to a special team under Sibi Mathew which eventually concluded the inquiry.)

A significant part of the liquor tragedy judgment too was the critical observations made by the court against a section of excise and police officials who were involved in the case and the role of certain political parties, a fact that was well known even as reports of the increasing death roll in the tragedy poured in (Frontline, November 24, 2000).

The court made special references to the names of officials appearing in a diary that Manichan had kept, which gave details of payments made to excise and police officials and local leaders of political parties who were regular beneficiaries.

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