The lynching was caught on camera but all six suspects accused of murdering dairy farmer Pehlu Khan have been acquitted by a Rajasthan trial court that gave them the benefit of doubt.
The outcome, said to have been marked by triumphant cries of “Jai Shri Ram” and “Bharat Mata ki jai”, triggered allegations that the prosecution in the then BJP-ruled state had weakened the case.
There were also suggestions that some of the accused were framed so that the case would not hold against them. The six accused named by Pehlu in his dying declaration had already been cleared in a chargesheet filed in September 2017.
The prosecution could not build a water-tight case in spite of the crime being recorded on video. Videos shot on mobile phones showed Pehlu begging for mercy as suspected vigilantes set upon him after stopping his truck with cows in the back. He died but his sons survived.
When Pehlu was lynched in April 2017, when the first chargesheet was filed in May 2017 and when the last chargesheet was submitted in court in September 2017, the BJP government led by Vasundhara Raje was in power.
The current Congress government, which came to power in December 2018, said on Wednesday that it would appeal the verdict.
“It’s a grave miscarriage of justice,” Kasim Khan, counsel for Pehlu’s family, told The Telegraph over the phone.
“The court acquitted all the six accused persons by giving them the benefit of doubt. The brutal incident was caught on camera and had sent shockwaves across the country but the killers are now free. Justice has been denied to the family.”
He said a video of the assault that was submitted in the court was not clear enough to establish the presence of the accused at the place where Pehlu, 55, was mercilessly thrashed on the suspicion of smuggling cows.
“Utterly Shameful! This is a lynching that was caught on camera! We live in a state of utter anarchy it seems…. Dark dark times,” actor Swara Bhasker tweeted.
Pehlu, his two sons and a few others were transporting cows from Jaipur when they were stopped and thrashed by the mob near Behror in Alwar district on April 1, 2017.
Pehlu had told the crowd he was bringing the cows from a cattle fair, but the assailants accused him of smuggling and planning to slaughter the cattle for beef.
The Haryana resident died in hospital on April 3.
“We were constantly facing threats to withdraw the case. The killers and their supporters threatened to kill me and my family if I pursued the case. We are shattered after the court’s verdict,” Pehlu’s son Irshad said.
Irshad, who was with Pehlu when they were intercepted by the mob, was also beaten up but survived.
Lawyer Khan accused the police under the then government of weakening the case. “The police under the then BJP government filed two contradictory chargesheets and diluted the case. The investigators had acted under political pressure and wanted to establish that no one killed Pehlu despite all the evidence,” Khan said.
The lawyer said moments after the judge pronounced the six accused “not guilty”, slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” and “Bharat Mata ki jai” had erupted from supporters of the accused present inside and outside the courtroom.
Rajasthan police had registered two FIRs in April 2017 following the assault: one against six prime accused whom Pehlu had named in his dying declaration; the other against Pehlu and his family for transporting cattle (cow) illegally out of the state.
In May 2017, when the BJP was still in power in Rajasthan, the police chargesheeted 15 suspects — the six men Pehlu had named and nine others, including three who were below 18.
The nine, all local residents, are alleged to have joined the six prime accused in the assault.
The CID-CB, which took over the probe later, filed another chargesheet in September that year but exonerated the six prime accused, said to be part of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
On Wednesday, the Alwar court acquitted the six remaining adult suspects who were already on bail. The three minors, who were lodged in a juvenile home, are also out on bail.
Defence lawyer Hukum Chand Sharma called the decision “historic” and a “slap in the face” of the people who he said were doing politics over it. “The police had picked up innocent people and all the six accused were framed because of political reasons,” he said.
Chief minister and Congress veteran Ashok Gehlot tweeted that “we are committed to ensuring justice for family of late Sh Pehlu Khan” and promised to file an appeal against the verdict.
The Gehlot government had recently faced criticism after Rajasthan police filed a chargesheet in June this year accusing Pehlu’s sons Irshad and Arif of smuggling cattle.
Ghelot had later said investigations in the case had been done in the past during the BJP government. If any discrepancies were found in the investigation, the case will be reinvestigated, he had said.
Additional reporting from Reuters and PTI