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Twists & turns in Muzaffarpur shelter home sexual abuse case and its political impact

Nineteen people, including a former Bihar MLA, were Monday convicted in the Muzaffarpur shelter home case. Sentencing is on 28 January.

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New Delhi: A Delhi court Monday convicted 19 people, including former MLA Brajesh Thakur, in connection with the sexual and physical assault of girls at a shelter home in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district.

Additional Sessions Judge Saurabh Kulshreshtha convicted Thakur on multiple grounds of rape, gangrape (section 376(d), IPC) aggravated sexual assault under section 6 of POCSO Act, criminal conspiracy and offences under the Juvenile Justice Act.

The women accused in the case were convicted of criminal conspiracy, abetment of crime, Section 12 (sexual harassment) of POCSO Act and provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act.

The court will hear the arguments on quantum of sentence for the convicts on 28 January.

ThePrint explains the timelines and the twists and turns in the case that triggered a political storm in Bihar.

‘Koshish project’

It was in June 2017 that Bihar’s Social Welfare Department asked the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, to prepare a report on the condition of shelters and short-stay homes in the state.

The report submitted by the seven-member team of young psychologists of the ‘Koshish Project’ in early 2018 made startling revelations about “physical and sexual violations of girls”, especially at the Muzaffarpur home.

The department then sprang into action, filing an FIR at the women’s police station in Muzaffarpur in May that year, seeking “suitable action” on the plight of girls interviewed by the TISS team.

The Bihar Police, during investigations, said in July 2018 that at least 34 girls were drugged and raped at the Muzaffarpur shelter home.

Absconding ministers

A political storm followed the TISS report, engulfing several influential people in the state.

On 5 August 2018, Governor Satyapal Malik suspended six assistant directors of the state Welfare Department for negligence in duty and delay in taking action after the TISS report.

Three days later, on 8 August, Bihar’s Minister of Welfare Manju Verma also resigned, after allegations surfaced that her husband Chandeshwar Verma had links to Thakur, the main accused in the case.

Ten days later, an FIR was registered against the couple after 50 cartridges were found at their house during a raid.

Chandeshwar, who had absconded for a month, surrendered in the Begusarai District Court in October 2018 after his bail applications were repeatedly rejected.

Manju, who had also been evading arrest, was suspended from the Janata Dal (United) in the following month. She surrendered days after and was granted bail by the Patna High Court in March 2019.

Also read: NHRC flags ‘sheer lawlessness’ in Bihar, state police question gang rape victim’s claim

‘Only small fry being targeted’

Apart from the horrific details that emerged, the case also drew national attention because of the fact that the shelter home was run by Thakur’s NGO that was state-funded.

In February last year, a special POCSO court also ordered a CBI probe against Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and two senior civil servants.

The order was passed on a plea filed by one of the accused, Ashwini, who claimed that the CBI was suppressing facts that would come to light if a probe is ordered into the roles of former Muzaffarpur DM Dharmendra Singh, former Muzaffarpur divisional commissioner Atul Kumar Singh and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

The plea also claimed the state government continued to fund the shelter homes even after TISS submitted the report.

Later in February, the matter also rocked the Bihar Assembly, with opposition MLAs demanding Nitish Kumar’s resignation over the case.

RJD MLAs led by Bhai Virendra and Lalit Yadav referred to the POCSO court order, and CPI(ML) members Satyadeo Ram, Sudama Rai and Mehboob Alam claimed that until now, “only small fry” were being targeted in the investigation.

Patna High Court monitors probe

The CBI was first brought in for the case by the Nitish Kumar government in July 2018. The next month, the Patna High Court took suo motu cognizance of the incident, and decided to monitor the investigation into the case.

However, the status report submitted by the CBI the same month left the high court disappointed.

“So many further investigation is required to be carried out and that too urgently , as any further delay may affect the merits of the case and even the evidence…” the court had noted.

In its order passed on 29 August 2018, the high court also directed the Special Director, CBI, New Delhi to monitor the progress of the probe, and had left it open for him to constitute a fresh team for further investigation.

SC steps in

The Supreme Court took cognizance of the allegations — on a petition filed by journalist Nivedita Jha — of sexual assault of the minor girls in September 2018.

On 18 September, the Supreme Court stayed the Patna High Court’s 29 August order and directed it to adjourn the matter, practically taking over the case.

While the CBI was already looking into the allegations against the Muzaffarpur shelter home, the Supreme Court, in November, directed it to investigate the other cases and allegations against Bihar shelter homes.

The CBI then filed a charge sheet in December 2018, saying Thakur would coerce the girls to dance to vulgar songs and have sexual intercourse with guests.

The Supreme Court also directed the case to be transferred from Bihar to POCSO court at Delhi’s Saket district court complex in February last year. After this, the Saket district court framed charges against the accused and held trial for offences, including criminal conspiracy, rape, penetrative sexual assault against minors, sexual assault, sexual harassment, drugging of minors and criminal intimidation.

In June 2019, the Supreme Court, which was overseeing the case, gave three months to the CBI to complete the investigation, including suspected murders.

The Supreme Court also directed the Bihar government to unite eight girls who used to stay at the shelter home with their families, and give them financial and medical assistance.

Also read: How Bihar govt dragged feet on Muzaffarpur sexual abuse case, defied SC

No evidence of murder

During the hearing, in October 2019, the CBI informed the Supreme Court that it had recovered two skeletons from the Muzaffarpur shelter home.

On 8 January, it told the court that forensic analysis revealed that the two skeletons found were of a man and woman and not of inmate minors.

Petitioner Jha’s lawyer had pointed out that the minor girls, in their statement under section 161 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, clearly claimed that the inmates of the shelter home were murdered.

However, the agency submitted that the girls who were initially thought to have been murdered had been found alive.

During the same hearing, the CBI submission revealed lapses on the part of over 70 officials in Bihar, including 25 IAS officers, in managing shelter homes in the state. The CBI asked the Bihar government to take appropriate action against the officials.

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