The Chennai sexual assault case verdict and its messaging

By A Shankar

On 6 December 2019, the nation woke up to the news of an early morning encounter of four persons who were allegedly involved in the rape and murder of a 27-year-old veterinary doctor in Hyderabad.  The news of rape and murder of the young doctor had sparked widespread outrage across the country and therefore many saw the killing by the Cyberabad cops as swift retribution of sorts. Especially in the light of how Nirbhaya’s rapists have managed to push the date of their execution repeatedly, almost suggesting they are being given a long rope. 

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What happened in Hyderabad is in stark contrast to Chennai. The Chennai city police which had to handle the very sensitive case of sexual assault of a 11-year-old child, ensured that the accused were tried in accordance with law. On Saturday, the Mahila Court in Chennai convicted 15 people accused in the case.

In July 2018, a complaint was filed with Ayanavaram All Women Police Station that a minor had been sexually assaulted by 17 persons in an age group ranging from 23 to 60.  The news created shock, disgust and outrage in equal measure and there were demands to ensure instant justice to the victim.  The police however, went according to the book and a case was registered under various provisions of IPC and POCSO. It swiftly arrested all the 17 accused and a charge sheet was filed at a Mahila court in Chennai.  The bail applications of all the accused were dismissed. The accused changed tack and filed a petition for CBI investigation.  However, the High Court of Madras promptly dismissed the plea and ordered trial on a daily basis. 

As many as 36 witnesses were examined and 120 documents cited as exhibits. During the trial, one of the accused died due to illness. 

“ The remaining 16 accused engaged separate counsels and each one of them cross-examined the prosecution witnesses separately for several hours. The court had ensured that the accused should be given a fair opportunity to defend themselves. The defence did not even spare the minor victim and took more than a week to cross-examine the child for more than a week,” said N Ramesh, Special Public Prosecutor.

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But the judgement had a twist. Judge RN Manjula acquitted one of the 16 accused and reserved orders on pronouncing the quantum of sentencing to Monday. Ramesh plans to file an appeal against the acquittal in the High court after going through the judgement copy. 

“This verdict has reposed faith in the judiciary.  This case has proved that the police can do a proper investigation and conviction can be secured.  Further there is justice to the victim also and the accused are also punished lawfully.  Both ways this is a good example of our criminal justice system. Instead of resorting to shortcut methods owing to public demand, police has done a lawful job. The acquittal of one accused also has proved that the judiciary does not get swayed by public demand and has gone only by evidence,” senior advocate Sudha Ramalingam told Filter Kaapi.

It was not as if there were not demands to do away with the accused. Chennai police commissioner AK Viswanathan (in pic) admits there was public pressure. 

“Yes, there were demands for encounter.  However, we believe in the system of law and were confident about our investigative skills and securing a conviction for all the accused.  We don’t rely on fake encounters.  The then Deputy Commissioner S Rajendran did a commendable job and arrested all the accused in 24 hours. It was team work”, said AK Viswanathan.

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Even as the Supreme court probe into the Telangana encounter is yet to take off effectively, the Chennai case has reinforced the faith of the public in the judicial system. More so because we live in a time when cries for instant justice are shrill and trigger-happy cops are hailed as heroes not just by civil society but even by elected representatives. 

(Views expressed are solely those of the author. He can be contacted at @Savukku)

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