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Judgment day after 700-odd court visits

A decade-long wait for justice with court visits taking up two of those years is set to end on Monday for the family of Sushil Pal, a gynaecologist allegedly murdered in 2004 for his refusal to carry out an illegal abortion.

Kanika Pal and daughters Shreya, 19, and Sreeja, 17, can’t wait to reach the Howrah district judge’s court that will pronounce its judgment in the case against a lady doctor and 12 others, including a member of the then ruling CPM’s Bally zonal committee.

“It’s been a long vigil spanning 700-odd days spent in the courts. I have had to face so many legal complications during this phase. Finally, we have a date for the verdict we have all been waiting for,” Kanika told Metro from her Singhee Park flat on Sunday.

Pal’s mud-caked body was fished out of a canal in Sankrail, Howrah, on July 3, 2004, a day after he left his Bright Street residence to go to the state-run Walsh Hospital in Serampore, which he had joined three months earlier.

According to the CID, the 47-year-old had been allegedly summoned to a nursing home owned by the then CPM zonal committee member Biswajyoti Basu on July 2 for an abortion on Piyali Das Mandal, also a doctor.

Piyali was five months and 20 days pregnant at the time and allegedly wanted to abort the foetus as it had Down Syndrome, a condition that induces physical and mental disabilities.

“Pal refused to conduct the abortion because the duration of the pregnancy would have made it illegal. His decision triggered the murder. He was confined to a room and murdered. Some of the accused then hired a boat from Ballyghat and travelled 20km to dump the body,” an officer involved in the investigation said.

The police found Pal’s bag at Ballyghat, which is around 20km from the canal from where the body had been fished out. “There were injuries on his back. It showed that the victim had been tortured before he was murdered,” the officer said.

The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1967 allows abortion till the 20th week of pregnancy, beyond which it is illegal.

“In India, abortion is allowed till exactly five months or 20 weeks of pregnancy. For 12 weeks, abortion is safe and between 13 and 20 weeks, it requires the opinion of at least two doctors because of associated risks,” fertility expert Gautam Khastgir said.

Piyali knew her baby had Down Syndrome through a common diagnostic test, sources said quoting prosecution documents. A blood test of the mother followed by ultrasonography in the 18th week can indicate the abnormality. Amniocentesis, in which a sample of the fluid from the womb is taken out for examination, confirms the findings.

Piyali got bail on the grounds of pregnancy. Seven other accused were granted bail before the trial started, one of whom committed suicide. Prime accused Biswajyoti and four others have been in judicial custody since.

Kanika, who teaches in a south Calcutta school, said keeping track of the court proceedings while simultaneously raising her daughters had been the most difficult part of the past decade. “I was all by myself through this and it’s been a testing period to say the least.”

Kanika’s lawyer Sandip Bhattacharya said the investigation and the trial were delayed for various reasons. “Arguments were heard three times over because the judges in the case would get transferred. The public prosecutor took several months to cross-examine the 79 witnesses.... But judgment day has arrived. We need to wait just a few hours more.”