Nearly 18 years after the horrific Suriyanelli gangrape case, the Kerala High court today handed down life imprisonment to prime accused Dharmarajan, while upholding the sentence of 23 other accused.
The order was passed by a special bench, comprising justices K T Sankaran and M L Joseph Francis while delivering the judgement on appeals filed by the accused.
The victim, who was a minor at the time, was taken to various places in Kerala and Tamil Nadu by the accused, travelling about 3000 km during a 40-day ordeal when she was raped by over 40 persons, before being released on February 26, 1996.
There were 36 accused in the case, of which five had died during trial. Seven accused were acquitted by the bench, constituted to hear the pleas afresh, today.
The court awarded sentences varying from five to 13 years and fine to the 23 accused.
The first accused, Raju, a bus conductor in Idukki and second accused Usha, were awarded 13 years RI for procuring the minor girl and giving her to the other accused.
The bench rejected the views put forth by the accused touching on the character of the victim. Their contention that the girl did not make any attempt to escape from their custody was also turned down by the court.
The court said "she was in a trap, she was terrorised and threatened by Dharmarajan."
The bench, while upholding the sentence awarded by Sessions Court at Kottayam, rejected the plea of the accused that the victim was 'deviant', and that she could have escaped during her captivity.
The victim had stated that she fell in love with Raju and had eloped with him and had pledged her gold ornaments.
"So it cannot be said that she is a 'deviant' girl," the judges observed.
The court also said she had not left her home out of lust or for money. "There is no material to prove such allegations," the judges observed and rejected the allegation that the victim was a 'child prostitute'.
Expressing its anguish on the increasing rate of crime on children and women in the state, the judges said this shows the state of affairs.
"Rape causes destruction and murder of physical body of the victim," they said, fully justifying the findings of the trial court.
The court had in 2005 acquitted all the 35 accused in the case and reduced the life sentence awarded to Dharmarajan, who was tried separately, to five years imprisonment on appeals filed by the accused.
This was challenged by the state government and the victim in the Supreme Court, which directed the court to constitute a new bench to hear the appeals afresh.
The bench was constituted in February last year.
Dharmarajan, who was absconding, was arrested from Sagar in Karnataka on February 15 last year after he appeared on a television channel.
The case relates to the abduction and sexual exploitation of a minor school girl from Suriyanelli in Kerala's high range Idukki district by several persons in 1996.
The judges said there was no embellishing in the evidence of the victim which runs to 598 pages and it was totally accepted. "There is material to show that her evidence is true.
She was mercilessly and brutally raped," the court held.
The prosecution case was that the girl, who was studying in school, was enticed, abducted and sexually exploited by a bus conductor, Raju, on January 16, 1996.
The girl was later handover to two others-- Usha and Dharmarajan, who is a lawyer.
The minor girl was then taken to various places in Kerala and Tamil Nadu was raped by over 40 persons.
Reacting to the judgement, the victim told television channels that she was happy with the verdict.
The sensational case took a new twist with the name of senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman, P J Kurien, cropping up.
The victim had been alleging since 1996 that Kurien was one of the perpetrators of the crime after she recognised him by a newspaper photograph.
However, Kurien had maintained all along that the allegations against him had been cleared by the High court and apex court.
The victim filed a fresh petition in the high court in December last year against the acquittal of Kurien in 2007, saying the order was passed without hearing her.
This petition, which came up before a single judge, was referred to a division bench, on a important question of law. The victim had approached the court on the basis of fresh allegation made by Dharmarajan and she wanted further investigation against Kurien.
Her pleas before the Peermedu and Thodupuzha courts against discharge of Kurien was rejected, saying there was no new ground for fresh investigation and there was delay in filing the petition.
The victim had in February last year also sent fresh police complaint against Kurien to Kottayam and Idukki SPs asking them to register her plea against Kurien.
The Suriyanelli victim's case was pending in the apex court for over eight years. After the shocking Delhi gang rape incident, the apex court had reversed the earlier High court judgement acquitting all the accused.