New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday directed that one of the accused in the 2018 Kathua rape and murder case of a minor girl be tried as an adult, setting aside orders by the Kathua chief judicial magistrate (CJM) and the Jammu and Kashmir high court which held him a juvenile.
A bench comprising Justices Ajay Rastogi and Justice J.B. Pardiwala allowed the appeal filed by the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir against the orders of the CJM and the high court. The accused can now be identified as Shubam Sangra.
The case triggered a nationwide outrage when the minor was found murdered on January 17, 2018. After initial hiccups, the case was handed over to the Jammu and Kashmir Crime Branch on January 27 of the same year, which said the girl was kidnapped and brutally raped for four days before being strangulated to death.
According to the chargesheet in the case filed by the Crime Branch, Sangra was instrumental in the abduction, gang rape and killing of the child. Eight people, including Sangra, were accused in the case.
“It is held that the respondent accused was not a juvenile at the time of the commission of the offence and should be tried the way other co-accused were tried in accordance with the law,” Justice Pardiwala said, reading out the operative portion of the order, according to LiveLaw.
“Medical opinion regarding age in absence of any other conclusive evidence should be considered to determine the age range of the accused…Whether medical evidence can be relied upon or not depends on the value of evidence,” the bench said.
The court held that medical opinion regarding the age of an accused cannot be “brushed aside” in the absence of any statutory proof on the same issue.
The investigation was backed by a report from a board of medical experts that determined Sangra’s age as not less than 19 and not more than 23 on January 10, 2018, when the brutal assault took place.
The report by specialists from different departments, including a physiologist, dental examiner, radiologist and forensic scientist, based its conclusion on various clinical tests as well as Sangra’s physical appearance.
Family hopes for justice
The family of the eight-year-old girl, which belongs to the Bakerwal nomadic tribe, welcomed the Supreme Court judgement on Wednesday. Mohammed Yusuf, who had adopted the minor, and Mohammed Akthar, her biological father, said the verdict generated hope of complete justice.
“We welcome the judgement of the Supreme Court, and we are hopeful that we will finally get complete justice as Sangra is the main accused in the case,” Yusuf said.
Yusuf and Akhtar, who are relatives, reached Samba district along with their families over a fortnight back after spending six months in search of greener pastures in the Kargil district of Ladakh.
“We did not get complete justice so far as some of the convicted persons are already out on bail over the past year,” Akhtar said, referring to the release of former sub-inspector Anand Dutta and head constable Tilak Raj by the Punjab and Haryana high court, which suspended the rest of their sentences pending an appeal.
Yusuf said they were dejected by certain developments, including the release of the culprits on bail, but the latest verdict came as a major relief for them as “we feel the victim will get justice finally”.
On February 7, 2020, the top court stayed the proceedings before the Juvenile Justice Board against Sangra after the Jammu and Kashmir administration claimed that the high court had erroneously affirmed the order of a trial court holding him as a juvenile at the time of the offence in 2018.
The administration had said the medical board constituted by the high court by its order of February 21, 2018 had opined that the accused was aged between 19 and 23 years at the time of the offence.
The top court on May 7, 2018 transferred the trial of the case from Kathua in Jammu to Pathankot in Punjab and ordered a day-to-day trial after some lawyers prevented the Crime Branch officials from filing a chargesheet in the sensational case.
The special court on June 10, 2019 sentenced three men to life imprisonment till their last breath for the ghastly crime.
Sanji Ram, the mastermind and caretaker of the devasthanam (temple) where the crime took place in January 2018; Deepak Khajuria, a special police officer, and Parvesh Kumar, a civilian – the three main accused – were spared the death penalty, a punishment sought by the prosecution during the year-long in-camera trial in the court.
The other three accused – sub-inspector Anand Dutta, head constable Tilak Raj and special police officer Surender Verma – were convicted for destruction of evidence to cover up the crime and handed down five years in jail and a Rs 50,000 fine each.
The trial court had acquitted the seventh accused Vishal Jangotra, son of Sanji Ram, giving him the ‘benefit of doubt’.
Application for birth certificate unravelled claim
A shoddily drafted application for a birth certificate was the loose string that led to the unravelling of the conspiracy to proclaim Sangra as a juvenile.
The inconsistencies in dates and false information in the application for a birth registration certificate filed by Sangra’s father on April 15, 2004 were crucial in nailing the lie.
The application at the tehsildar’s office in Hiranagar, Jammu, was filed by Sangra’s father who wanted the birth registration certificates of his three children. The eldest, a boy, whose date of birth was stated to be November 23, 1997, a daughter said to be born on February 21, 1998, and Shubam Sangra on October 23, 2002, police said.
The difference in the birthdays of the two elder children was just two months and 28 days, “which by any medical standard is impossible”, the affidavit states.
This, it says, indicates the father’s casual approach in furnishing the particulars of the dates of birth.
Moreover, no place of birth was mentioned for the older two, but Shubam Sangra was stated to be born in a Hiranagar hospital. A subsequent investigation to test the veracity of that statement did not bear that out, officials said.
A special investigation team sent a questionnaire to the Hiranagar block medical officer and asked for records of Sangra’s birth along with the particulars of the parents. The block medical officer verified the record and categorically stated that no delivery in the name of Sangra’s mother had taken place on October 23, 2002, police said in the affidavit before the apex court.
“…in fact these entries were imaginary, and without any supporting birth record of either Municipal Committee or Primary Health Centre where the birth of the respondent (juvenile) is stated to have taken place,” it said.
The Crime Branch chargesheet detailed Sangra’s alleged involvement in the horrific crime. It said Sangra was responsible for an overdose of sedatives forcibly administered to the eight-year-old, rendering her “incapacitated” to resist the sexual assault on her as well as her murder.
“She was forcefully administered five tablets of Clonazepam of 0.5 mg each on January 11, 2018 which is higher than the safe therapeutic dose. Subsequently more tablets were given…The signs and symptoms of an overdose may include drowsiness, confusion, impaired coordination, slow reflexes, slowed or stopped breathing, coma (loss of consciousness) and death,” a medical expert was quoted as saying.
The peak concentration of clonazepam is achieved in the blood after one hour to 90 minutes of oral administration and its absorption is complete, “irrespective of administered either with or without food”, according to the concluding opinion.
Doctors were of the opinion that tablets given to the child could have pushed her into a state of shock or coma.