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‘No fair trial’ — what SC said while acquitting 3 convicted in 2012 Chhawla gangrape & murder

In its order, 3-judge bench of Supreme Court noted that the trial in lower court had 'many glaring lapses' & that courts cannot 'punish on basis of moral conviction or suspicion'.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court Monday acquitted three men convicted in the 2012 Chhawla gang-rape and murder case eight years after they were sentenced to death by a lower court for the alleged crime.

“We lost everything today, the fight for justice is over,” the girl’s father told ThePrint post the acquittal. “We lost our daughter. If this is justice, how will any daughter or families of women who have been victims of such horrific crimes approach the legal system for justice ever again?” he said.

A bench comprising Chief Justice of India (CJI) U.U. Lalit and Justices Ravindra Bhat and Bela M. Trivedi gave the men — Rahul, Ravi and Vinod — the “benefit of the doubt”, and noted that the trial in the lower court was riddled with “many glaring lapses”. 

Referring to how the eyewitnesses to the girl’s abduction, which included her friends, had not identified the accused sitting in court during their respective depositions, the court ruled: “Therefore, the very identity of the appellants-accused having not been duly established, the entire case of the prosecution falls flat on the very first circumstance having not been duly proved by any evidence much less clinching evidence, against the appellants-accused.”

The court also highlighted that, of the 49 witnesses examined by the prosecution, 10 material witnesses were not cross-examined, and many other key witnesses were not adequately cross-examined by the defence counsel. Lamenting that the trial court “acted as a passive umpire”, the bench found that the men were “deprived of their rights to have a fair trial”.

Additionally, the apex court noted that the trial court “committed a gross error” by admitting the purported confessions the accused made before the police, despite the same not being allowed under the Evidence Act. 

The court, therefore, set aside the judgment and orders of conviction and sentence passed by the trial court and the high court. 

“Thus, having regard to the totality of circumstances and the evidence on record, it is difficult to hold that the prosecution had proved the guilt of the accused by adducing cogent and clinching evidence.

“It may be true that if the accused involved in the heinous crime go unpunished or are acquitted, a kind of agony and frustration may be caused to the society in general and to the family of the victim in particular, however, the law does not permit the courts to punish the accused on the basis of moral conviction or on suspicion alone,” read the order.

Also Read: Out of jail for three months at a time: Convicts in Bilkis Bano case dodged parole regulations

The case — 2012-22

The 19-year-old girl and her colleagues were returning home on 9 February 2012 from Cyber Hub in Gurugram — where she worked as a data entry operator — when three men allegedly approached her and pulled her into a red Tata Indica. The incident, according to the Delhi HC verdict, happened not far from the victim’s home in Delhi’s Qutub Vihar area.

Her colleagues immediately alerted the police and the family, who then filed a complaint at the Chhawla police station.

According to the prosecution, four days later, on 13 February, police arrested three men, two of whom led them to Rodai village in Haryana’s Rewari from where they retrieved the girl’s mutilated body the same day. She had been allegedly gang-raped and tortured.

The post-mortem report, in addition to revealing that she was attacked with liquor bottles and metal objects, also said that there were signs of torture, including a head injury, burn marks and injuries on her private parts. Reports also suggested that acid was poured on her eyes and face.

A Delhi court in 2014 convicted the three men on charges of kidnapping, gang-rape and murder and sentenced them to death. That same year, a bench of the Delhi HC upheld the death sentence, branding the men “trained bloodhounds” and “sexual psychopaths”. 

The verdicts were challenged by the accused in the Supreme Court in 2015.

Meanwhile, the girl’s family had to relocate to avoid public gaze.

Circumstances surrounding arrest

The apex court, in its order Monday, also questioned the circumstances surrounding the accused’s arrest.

According to the prosecution’s version of events, a “perplexed” Rahul was first detained on 13 February in Dwarka after he was seen driving a red Indica and failed to produce a valid driver’s licence.

He then allegedly gave a disclosure statement to the police, which became the basis for the arrest of his brother Ravi and friend Vinod, both of whom were brought to the police station by beat constables, claimed the prosecution. The “non-examination” of those beat constables created a “cloud of doubt in the story of the arrests of the accused”, the top court said in its order.

Accused Vinod and Ravi had also submitted that they were picked up from their respective homes.

But in his statements before the apex court, Rahul claimed that Ravi was picked up from his home by the police and that he himself was arrested and his car seized when he went to the police station looking for the latter. 

“Thus, the circumstances under which the accused were arrested and the car was seized have also raised serious doubts in the story put forth by the prosecution,” read the order.

While Rahul had told the court that his driver’s licence and ATM cards were taken from him at the police station, the police claimed that a wallet carrying these credentials, along with a broken piece of his car’s bumper, was recovered from near where police found the woman’s body. 

Besides these, the prosecution’s claim that the accused led investigators to the victim’s broken mobile phone (retrieved from near Rajinder Dhaba in Delhi) and undergarment (from Palam Vihar in Dwarka) which further solidified their argument that the three men were responsible for the heinous crime.

However, the court noted that the seizure memo of the wallet did not mention any such documents, adding that “no Investigating Officer would commit such a blunder of not mentioning them in the seizure memo”.

DNA reports vulnerable

To justify the verdict, both the trial court and the HC had relied heavily on DNA samples extracted from hair strands allegedly found on the rear seat of Rahul’s Indica, along with DNA collected from semen spots found in the same car, the DNA from blood spots on tools recovered from the car, and the mixed DNA profile from the victim’s vaginal swab. 

Senior advocate Sonia Mathur, the amicus curiae or friend of the court, in this case, had also challenged the DNA findings, arguing that the collection of samples sent for examination was “very doubtful” and that the forensic evidence was “neither scientifically nor legally proved”.

The SC noted that samples of the three accused and the deceased were seized on 14 February and 16 February, respectively, but sent to the Central Forensic Science Laboratory (CFSL) for examination only on 27 February.

“During this period, they remained in the malkhana (evidence room) of the police station. Under the circumstances, the possibility of tampering with the samples collected also could not be ruled out,” the top court opined. It also said that neither the trial court, nor the high court had examined the underlying basis of the findings in the DNA reports, and had also failed to examine whether the techniques were reliably applied by the expert. 

“In absence of such evidence on record, all the reports about the DNA profiling become highly vulnerable, more particularly when the collection and sealing of the samples sent for examination were also not free from suspicion,” read the order.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

Also Read: ‘POCSO a secular law, applies to all’: How NCPCR opposed marriage of 16-yr-old Muslim girl in SC


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