New Delhi, Sept. 1: Amit Singh is a free man now.
The 29-year-old, sentenced to life in prison for murder, had already spent 12 years in jail when he claimed he should have been tried as a minor as he was not yet 18 when the crime was committed.
The Supreme Court agreed, and let him off.
However, if a proposed amendment to the Juvenile Justice Act is passed, 12 years might be a bit too late to seek such relief.
The women and child development ministry, which has formed a committee to amend the act, is ready with a proposal that is likely to specify a time frame within which a person can claim juvenility.
At present, a person can approach any court at any stage of the trial, or even after a case is disposed of, to raise such a claim under the rehabilitative act for a much more lenient punishment — a maximum of three years’ detention in an observation home for any crime.
Sources in the ministry said the amendment, if passed, would considerably lower the burden on courts and indicated that the time limit might be anywhere between three and 10 years.
Not everyone agrees with this line of thinking.
“This in effect means that if a child is a minor at the time of committing a crime, and does not have the wherewithal to prove his age, he would have to find a way to prove his juvenility within a specified time. (It’s) basically telling the child, ‘Sorry, we have made a mistake by trying you as an adult, bear with us. Please adjust.’ The Centre, without trying to plug the holes in the system, is shutting the window of opportunity for these people,” said Anant Asthana, a Delhi-based lawyer and expert on juvenile justice law.
Bharti Ali, who was part of the review committee, said this law couldn’t have a “retrospective” effect.
“Yes, the ministry has been discussing this with the committee…. This issue was widely debated within the committee, with different groups taking varied stands. I believe that this law cannot have a retrospective effect. A person, say, at 69 years of age cannot claim that he was a juvenile when he committed an offence,” Ali added.
Although Ali conceded the act should also include a provision to deal with exceptional situations, the founder and co-director of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, said there should be a “bar on the number of years” within which a person can raise the claim of juvenility. “This cannot be open for an unspecified number of years.”
But Asthana referred to Tihar reports that he said had proved there were “thousands of children rotting in jails”.
A recent Delhi High Court order had resulted in an enquiry by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in Tihar jail. The probe revealed hundreds of juveniles incarcerated as adults and, by July, at least 150 children had managed to prove that they were minors.
“As the Tihar reports have proved, there are thousands of children rotting in jails across the country who cannot prove that they are minors. In some exceptional cases, like Ramdeo Chauhan’s case (see box), which took 19 years to prove that he was a minor, there were child rights activists who supported his cause,” Asthana said.
“But in most cases, the children do not even have any responsible and capable adult around them to advise and help them to raise the claim of juvenility. So, if this provision (of a time frame) stays in the final draft, it will mean that the window of justice for the wronged child is shut,” Asthana said.
RAMDEO: GALLOWS TO FREEDOM
But his case cannot be replicated if the
proposed amendment is approved
1992: A civil engineer and his family found murdered in their house in Assam; 15-year-old help Ramdeo Chauhan arrested
1998: Chauhan found guilty by trial court and sentenced to death
2003: Medical tests confirm Chauhan was 15 or 16 at the time of the crime
2011: After 19 years, Chauhan walks free, at age 34, after the Supreme Court says trying him as an adult was a “travesty of justice”.