The Kerala government has been stung by widespread criticism over a botched investigation and shoddy prosecution in a sexual assault and murder of two minor girls. Chief minister Pinarayi VijayanChief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s explanations have cut little ice with the public following revelations that the ruling CPI(M) had tried to influence investigation.
The parents of the two girls have demanded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), citing lack of faith in the local police. The chief minister has said that his government cannot order one, but will not oppose it if the parents petition a court demanding such a probe.
“We want justice,” the mother told reporters in Thiruvananthapuram, after meeting the chief minister on Thursday. “No other child should suffer this fate. We want a re-investigation by the CBI. The chief minister has promised all support to us.”
The elder girl, 13, was found hanging on January 13, 2017. Her younger sister, nine, was found in a similar condition at the same spot on March 4.
The government faces a problem because it cannot order a re-investigation into the deaths as the law does not permit it. A fresh probe can be ordered only if new charges based on fresh facts are filed or if the government admits in court that the investigation agency sabotaged the legitimate probe through acts of omission and commission. Caught in such a bind, the chief minister has said that the government will consult legal experts to see if there is any way out. Right now, it has decided on the only thing it can do: file an appeal in the High Court against the POSCO court acquittal of the four persons. The fifth accused, a 17-year-old boy, is being tried by the Juvenile Justice Board, which is yet to deliver its judgement.
The public has been outraged at what it considers a concerted effort to sabotage the case because two of the accused are DYFI members. Reports have emerged that CPI(M) politicians visited the police station right in the beginning to influence the case. Right from the word go, the local police did a shoddy job. They did not investigate the claim of the sister that she saw two masked men run out of the house after which she found the body. They ignored the autopsy finding of brutal sexual assault. Only after the second child was found hanging, did the police brass wake up and try to bring a semblance of order and set up a special team.
Defense lawyer Ranjith Krishna, who represented two of the accused, said it was the younger girl who found her sister hanging from the ceiling and alerted others through her wailing. The chief welfare officer who met her should have counselled her and tried to find out how the girl died, but did nothing, he said.
The bodies of the girls were found hanging eight feet above the ground. While the police have called it a suicide, they have not given a convincing explanation how the girls could have tied a rope that high, especially when no stool or ladder was found in the area.
The court had said that there was lack of scientific and medical evidence and that much of the evidence was only circumstantial and of dubious quality. The Malayalam media has highlighted what it calls planting of witnesses. First Additional Sessions Judge Muralee Krishnan said three prosecution witnesses made completely contradictory statements when they claimed they were together campaigning.
He had also severely criticised the performance of the special public prosecutor Lata Jayaraj, which allowed the accused to walk away scot-free. Jayaraj was fiercely opposed for the job because of her inexperience, but the government refused to appoint a more experienced person. Jayaraj has instead blamed shoddy investigation by the police and not her performance for the acquittal. The chief minister has promised to change the prosecution counsel during the appeal.
Muddying the issue for the government was the appearance N Rajesh as defense counsel for one of the accused. Rajesh was chairman of the government’s Child Welfare Committee, which is mandated to protect children in need of care. Rajesh was a CPI(M) nominee for the post and his detractors blame that for the lackadaisical attitude of the police. He has since been removed from the post.
“The police had all along adopted an approach helpful to the accused,” said BJP Palakkad president E Krishnadas. “Now, it’s also been proved that the accused were locally connected to the ruling party.”
Political parties and the public have seized the issue and held street protests across the state and even in New Delhi. They have also been keen to rope in the parents to protest against the government, but the parents stayed away, and instead are dealing through Punnala Sreekumar, a local leader with close contacts with the chief minister.
Their meeting with the chief minister comes at a time when the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights began a two-day sitting in the state capital to hear cases relating to atrocities against members of the Scheduled Castes. One of the members, Yashwant Jain, had scheduled a meeting with the parents in their home in Walayar. Jain said the parents were instead summoned by the chief minister for a meeting on the same day. “I suspect they were called to Thiruvananthapuram deliberately to avoid a meeting with the commission,” he said. The The mother has now said she would not be meeting with the Commission members as she had already held talks with the chief minister and was satisfied with the assurances.
The Commission has decided to register a case suo motu and summon the district collector and police for not extending any support to the commission.
Abuse of minors has mostly gone unpunished in Kerala. Barely 20% of POSCO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act) cases have resulted in a conviction, often because of delay in filing of chargesheets and witnesses turning hostile, according to Bindu PA, special public prosecutor in the Posco court in Ernakulam. In most cases, she said, it was found that the police officers mishandled the FIR. Lawyers have favoured the establishment of legal cells to assist the police, especially in the crime branch, in preparing fool-proof chargesheets.