April 4: Kerala High Court today smashed the shell of innuendoes built around the Suryanelli rape victim, over 18 years after “some savages disguised as men” raped her and over nine years after an earlier order questioned her character.
The division bench of Justices K.T. Shankaran and M.L. Joseph Francis upheld the trial court’s conviction of 24 of the accused acquitted by another division bench of the same court in January 2005. The bench restored the life sentence imposed on key accused Dharmarajan and awarded jail terms ranging from four to 13 years to the rest.
The court also set aside remarks in the 2005 order that the girl “was not an unwilling partner” in the case.
“She was in a trap, she was terrorised and threatened by Dharmarajan,” the court said, rejecting the contention that she was “not unwilling” as she did not try to escape from captivity in the 40 days she was violated by various men.
The court said there was “no material to prove” allegations that she was a “child prostitute” or a “deviant girl”. It said she had fallen in love with a bus conductor, which turned out to be her undoing.
“There is material to show that her evidence is true. She was mercilessly and brutally raped,” the court said. “Rape causes destruction and murder of the physical body of the victim.”
When the 2005 acquittal was challenged in the Supreme Court, it set the high court order aside in January 2013 and ordered a fresh hearing. The top court order drew attention in the wake of the December 16 gang rape and because the name of P.J. Kurien, Congress leader and Rajya Sabha deputy chairman, had initially figured in the list of accused. He was subsequently acquitted.
The case dates back to 1996 when the girl was only 16. On January 16, she was abducted from school in Suryanelli in Idukki district by bus conductor Raju, who feigned love for her. Soon after, he handed her over to a pimp, Usha, and key accused Dharmarajan, a lawyer.
The girl was kept captive for 40 days and taken across Kerala and even to Tamil Nadu and presented to at least 41 men, according to police. She was released on February 26, 1996.
In September 2000, a trial court in Kottayam district convicted 35 of the 40 accused and awarded them sentences ranging from four to 13 years. They were charged with rape, gang rape, kidnapping, criminal conspiracy, wrongful confinement, procuring a minor girl and trading her.
But the court acquitted four men. Dharmarajan, who had been absconding, was tried separately after he surrendered later. He was held guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In January 2005, the high court overturned this verdict, acquitting all the accused except Dharmarajan, whose jail term was reduced to four years.
The court then said the victim was in need of money and had misappropriated cash from home for her personal expenses.
In February last year, video footage that shows a person deriding the victim surfaced. It has been claimed that the speaker, whose face is not clearly visible, is a former judge.
The speaker is heard telling a reporter from a Malayalam news channel: “There is ample evidence to show that she was used for child prostitution. Child prostitution is no rape. It is immoral.”
The speaker then appears to question why the girl did not seek help since she had contact with the outside world. He wondered if she was held captive at all.
“This girl is said to be under captivity. But she is taken to a doctor for sore throat. Look at the point of view of those captors. Would they ever take her to a doctor if (she was in forced captivity)?... All these questions were there,” the speaker is heard saying in the footage.
Today’s high court order sought to dismiss such opinions. The judges observed that she had given money to Raju out of love for him. The court also addressed another misconception, pointing out that sex workers were entitled to protection of the law.
In Kottayam, the victim’s parents welcomed the court order. “Our prayers for justice have been heard by God. We welcome the verdict,” her mother said.
In 2006, a movie called Achanurangatha Veedu (The house where the father doesn’t sleep) was inspired by the Suryanelli case. It tells the story of a girl pushed into a sex racket by the boy she loved.
But unlike what happened today, the film ends with the accused going scot-free and the victim’s father and two sisters being jailed for attempted suicide.