Kochi, Apr 4 (PTI): The Kerala High court on Friday handed down life imprisonment to the prime accused in the 1996 Suryanelli gang-rape case, in which a minor girl was passed around and raped by scores of persons during a 40-day ordeal.
While Dharmarajan, the prime accused, got a life term, the court also upheld the sentences of the 23 other accused.
A special bench of justices K T Sankaran and M L Joseph Francis passed the order while delivering the judgment on appeals filed by the accused.
The victim, who was 16 years old 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 over 40 persons raped her, before she was released on February 26, 1996.
There were 36 accused in the case, of which five had died during trial.
On Friday, the bench constituted to hear the pleas afresh acquitted seven accused.
The court awarded sentences varying from five to 13 years and fine to 23 accused.
The first accused, Raju, a bus conductor in Idukki and second accused Usha, were awarded 13 years rigorous imprisonment 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. It also turned down their contention that the girl did not make any attempt to escape from their custody.
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'.
In 2005, the court had 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.
The state government and the victim challenged this 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 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 Raju, on January 16, 1996.
The girl was later handed over to Usha and Dharmarajan, who is a lawyer, and then taken to various places in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and raped by over 40 persons.
Reacting to the judgment, the victim told television channels that she was happy.
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 high court and the apex court had cleared the allegations against him.
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.
The Peermedu and Thodupuzha courts rejected her pleas against the discharge of Kurien, saying there was no new ground for fresh investigation and there was delay in filing the petition.
In February last year, the victim had also sent a fresh police complaint against Kurien to the police chiefs of Kottayam and Idukki, asking them to register her plea against Kurien.
The Suryanelli 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 judgment acquitting all the accused.