Six of the seven men accused in the 2018 rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua were convicted on Monday by a special court in Pathankot. The court sentenced mastermind Sanji Ram, a retired government official and priest of the temple where the crime took place, special police officer Deepak Khajuria, and Ram's nephew Parvesh Kumar to life imprisonment. It also awarded five years in prison to Special Police Officer Surender Vetma, head constable Tilak Raj, and sub-inspector Anand Dutta for destroying evidence.
The court has acquitted Vishal Jangotra, Ram's son, on a "benefit of doubt". District and Sessions Judge Tejwinder Singh, who concluded the hearing on June 3 in a record time of 14 months, read out the verdict and declared the six accused guilty under different Sections of the law.
The court convicted Sanji Ram, Deepak Khajuria and Parvesh Kumar under Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 302 (murder), 376/D (gang rape), 363 (kidnapping), 328 (poisoning), 201 (destroying evidence) and 343 (wrongful confinement). They were also fined ₹100,000 each. Surender Verma, Tilak Raj and Anand Dutta were found guilty under Section 201 (destroying evidence) and will face “an imprisonment of five years and a fine of ₹50,000”.
In Vishal's case, the defence lawyers produced material evidence that he was in Meerut at the time of the crime to appear for his examination. The State Crime Branch had only produced witnesses and "not enough evidence" in his case, the court said.
The Crime Branch has filed chargesheet against eight people, including a juvenile. Trial against the minor is yet to begin as his petition on determining his age is yet 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, has demanded capital punishment for the main accused and might appeal against the sole acquittal.
“The court has underlined that life imprisonment meant life in jail in this case. However, we will appeal in the higher court for an enhancement of the punishment against all the seven accused,” Special Prosecutor Santosh Singh said. Defence lawyers described the sole acquittal as "a positive development", adding that they would also appeal for relaxation of punishment for the others.
The father of the victim welcomed judgement but said the family was expecting that the culprits would be handed the death penalty. He also expressed unhappiness over the acquittal of the seventh accused.
The eight-year-old girl from the nomadic community of Bakerwal was kidnapped from Kathua’s Rasana area on January 10 in 2018 and was found dead on January 17. According to a 15-page charge sheet, the young victim was kidnapped, drugged, hit by a stone, raped and strangulated inside the temple premises by the accused.
The first lawyer to fight for the victim, Deepika Singh Rajawat said, "It's a big day and a victory for all of us. We must salute the Crime Branch for conducting the investigation in a professional manner. I have decided to write a book on a lawyer's journey in the face of threats and intimidation."
The National Conference (NC), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the Peoples Conference and the J&K Peoples Movement welcomed the verdict. “I hope the loopholes in our judicial system are not exploited and culprits get exemplary punishment. Instead of politicising and subsequently communalising rape, alarm bells should ring about why minor girls are being raped brutally,” said PDP president Mehbooba Mufti, who was Chief Minister when the incident took place.
BJP State spokesperson on Kashmir Affairs, Ashwani Kumar Chrungoo, termed the verdict “flawed”. “The BJP will only accept the decision if the Supreme Court gives the same verdict,” he said.