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Three of the six accused in the rape-and-murder case of an eight-year-old nomadic girl in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua were awarded life imprisonment by a special court in Pathankot today (Monday, June 10).

The remaining three were sentenced to five years of imprisonment. The seventh accused, Vishal, was acquitted by the court while an accused juvenile faces a separate trial, reported The Indian Express.

Former government officer Sanji Ram, who was believed to be the mastermind, was among those convicted by a special fast-track court in Pathankot earlier today. Others convicted include Special Police Officers, investigating officers.

Ram’s son Vishal Jangotra was acquitted, while an accused juvenile faces a separate trial.

Sanji Ram, the caretaker of the temple where the crime took place, Special Police Officer Deepak Khajuria and Parvesh Kumar, a civilian, were convicted under Ranbir Penal Code sections pertaining to criminal conspiracy, murder, kidnapping, gangrape, destruction of evidence, drugging the victim and common intention.

The three main accused have been sentenced to 25 years for charges of gangrape, PTI reported.

The trial, held in-camera, ended on June 3. Elaborate security arrangements were made for the verdict today in the high-profile and volatile case.

According to the lawyers, the accused — including retired government official Sanjhi Ram, special police officers (SPO) Deepak Khajuria and Surender Verma, Head Constable Tilak Raj, Sub-Inspector Anand Dutta and civilian Parvesh Kumar — “were found guilty under several sections.”

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The lawyers, representing the eight-year-old in the special court, told the media that the key accused Ram, Khajuria and Kumar were held guilty under 366 (kidnapping), Section 302 (murder) and section 336 (rape) and 34 (common intention).

The three policemen were convicted under Section 201 (destruction of evidence).

Around 114 witnesses’ accounts were recorded in the case.

The eight-year-old girl from Bakerwal nomadic was kidnapped on January 10 last year and held captive at a village temple in Kathua. She was drugged, starved and repeatedly raped for days. Finally, she was strangled and her head was bashed in with a rock. One of the accused allegedly begged to rape her one last time before she was killed.

Describing the murder, the police chargesheet states: “After committing the barbaric act of rape on the minor victim, the accused Khajuria kept her neck on his left thigh and started applying force with his hands on her neck in order to kill her; Khajuria was unsuccessful in killing her, the juvenile killed her by pressing his knees against her back while strangulating the girl by applying force on both the ends of her chunni. Thereafter, the accused, in order to make sure that the victim is dead, hit her twice on the head with a stone.”

The child’s mutilated body was found in a forest area on January 17. Three days later, one of the accused – reportedly a juvenile – was arrested by police. He is Sanji Ram’s nephew. The trial in his case is yet to begin because a petition on determining his age is yet to be heard by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court.

Amid nationwide outrage over the savage killing of the child, the case was handed over to the Crime Branch, following which a police sub-inspector and a head constable were arrested for destroying evidence. Sanji Ram, a retired revenue officer, surrendered on March 20 last year.

Investigations suggested that the girl was raped and murdered in an effort to terrorise the Muslim Bakerwalnomads frequenting the Kathua area and drive them out.

The case had taken a communal turn when an outfit called ‘Hindu Ekta Manch’ was set up to support the accused with two BJP ministers of then J&K Government backing it. Even the lawyers in Kathua had attempted to prevent the prosecution from submitting the challan against accused persons before the court of law. The girl had to be buried 8KM away from her village as her body was not allowed to be buried in the local village.

The issue drove a wedge between the then BJP-Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) alliance in the state after two BJP leaders – Chowdhury Lal Singh and Prakash Ganga – participated in a rally organised in support of the accused.

The Supreme Court ordered that the trial be shifted out of Jammu and Kashmir after lawyers at the Kathua court prevented the Crime Branch from filing charges amid high drama on April 9.

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All the accused, barring the juvenile, were shifted to Gurdaspur jail on the orders of the top court. It also restricted the appearance of defence lawyers to one or a maximum of two per accused, and ordered day-to-day in-camera trial by the district and sessions judge at Pathankot. Late last year, the family of the Kathua victim dropped their lawyer – Deepika Rajawat – accusing her of not making herself available for court hearings. Rajawat, for her part, said she had been receiving death threats ever since she took up the case.

Reactions:

Former Army chief and BJP MP VK Singh, welcoming the verdict, tweeted: “The guilty from Kathua rape-murder case are convicted- it gives me hope that such brutalities will not go unpunished. But it also makes me think of our collective consciousness as a society- why should Kathua or Aligarh happen?  Need to educate our boys on how to treat and respect women.”

“Amen to that. The guilty deserve the most severe punishment possible under law. And to those politicians who defended the accused, vilified the victim & threatened the legal system no words of condemnation are enough,” said National Conference vice president Omar Abdullah.

Welcoming the judgment, former chief minister and Peoples Development Party chief Mehbooba Mufti, tweeted: “Welcome the judgement. High time we stop playing politics over a heinous crime where an 8 year old child was drugged, raped repeatedly & then bludgeoned to death. Hope loopholes in our judicial system are not exploited & culprits get exemplary punishment.”

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