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All three convicts in Kopardi rape-cum-murder case that racked Maharashtra in July last year were sentenced to death by a sessions court in Ahmednagar on Wednesday.

The main accused Jitendra Babubal Shinde alias Pappu (21) and co-accused Santosh Gorakh Bhaval (29) and Nitin Bhailume (28) had been held guilty by the court on November 18.

The brutal rape and murder of a 15-year-old in Maharashtra’s Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district last year led to widespread outrage and triggered Maratha protests last year. The girl was a Maratha and the accused Dalits.

The crime took place on July 13, 2016. The girl was returning home after meeting her grandfather when Jitendra Shinde accosted the girl and brutally tortured and raped her. He then called his friends who dragged her to an isolated location and murdered her. The victim’s body bore signs of brutal assault. Her limbs had been broken, her hair pulled out, and there were bite marks all over.

All three accused were arrested right after the incident.

The crime created massive outrage in Maharashtra and led to Dalit-Maratha tension. While the victim belonged to the Maratha community, the accused were from the Dalit Mahar caste and worked as labourers in the same village.

Maratha community launched ‘mook morchas’ (silent marches) demanding capital punishment for the accused and amendment to the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to curb its misuse. It soon grew into demand for reservation for Marathas in colleges and government jobs.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced several sops to pacify the Marathas. Their main demand for reservation, however, is to be decided by the Bombay High Court, which is dealing with a petition challenging a 16 per cent quota for the community announced by the previous government.

The case also caused an uproar in the Maharashtra assembly during the monsoon session, with the Opposition demanding action from the government. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis promised that the case would be heard by a fast-track court and also announced Rs 5 lakh financial help to the victim’s family.

The order was widely welcomed as justice delivered. However, in a report, The Indian Express contrasted this with the judgment on November 23 in an adjoining court in another case, where all nine accused charged with the murder of 17-year-old Dalit student Nitin Agey, in 2014 were acquitted for lack of evidence. All witnesses had turned hostile.

Agey was killed in broad daylight in Kharda village of Jamkhed taluka of Ahmednagar district and his dead body was hanged from a tree, allegedly by men from the upper caste Maratha community, who suspected him of having a love affair with a girl related to them.

The state had appointed Ujjwal Nikam as public prosecutor in the case.

On October 7, Ahmednagar police filed a charge sheet running into over 350 pages before the court, charging the three accused under IPC Sections 302 (murder), 376 (rape) and relevant sections of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.

The court held the three guilty on November 18. Arguments over the point of sentence were concluded by the defence lawyers and special public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam on November 21 and 22, with the defence arguind for life imprisonment.  following which the court had posted the much-anticipated sentencing for November 29.

Ahmednagar district and sessions court judge Suvarna Keole pronounced all the three accused guilty in the Kopardi rape and murder case in November. Arguments over the quantum of punishment began on Novermber 21, with the defense arguing for life imprisonment. However, special public prosecutor, Ujjwal Nikam argued that this was a ‘rarest of the rare case’ and hence the three convicts should be awarded the death sentence.

The courted posted the pronouncement of sentence for Wednesday, November 29.  The three convicts were brought to the Ahmednagar district and sessions court in heavy security around 9.30am. Police were deployed in large numbers around the court complex as well in Ahmednagar city in view of the sensitivity of the case, said media reports.

The court presided by judge SK Keole delivered the judgment in just 10 minutes, said media reports. The three convicts showed no reaction and stood motionless with their heads down. Reportedly, none of the defense lawyers were there, while special prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam was present in the court.

The death sentence is subject to confirmation by the Bombay high court.

After the verdict, the mother of the victim broke down and thanked everyone who helped the case reach its end.

Chief Minister Fadnavis, welcoming the verdict, said, “No one ever would dare to commit such a crime in this state anymore after this verdict.”

“With the capital punishment, wish of lakhs of mothers and sisters in the state has been fulfilled and with this verdict faith of common people in the judiciary is going to increase,” he said.

He thanked Ujjwal Nikam and investigating agencies for their work. He said the case had shaken the whole of Maharashtra and that is why state Government engaged Advocate Ujjwal Nikam for fighting the case and he ensured the guilty are punished. He said that the case has been brought to the conclusion in record time and state government had decided to ask Ujjwal Nikam for this case to expedite the case in record speed.

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