New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday stayed the Bombay high court order which acquitted a man under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act saying groping a minor’s breast without “skin-to-skin contact” cannot be termed as sexual assault.
A bench of Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde and Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian stayed the high court order after Attorney General K.K. Venugopal mentioned the matter. According to news reports, he submitted that the judgement was “unprecedented” and “is likely to set a dangerous precedent”.
Activists and child rights bodies had severely criticised the Nagpur bench’s verdict, terming it “absolutely unacceptable, outrageous and obnoxious”. In a letter to the Maharashtra chief secretary, the chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights had urged the state to review and challenge the high court verdict.
The top court on Wednesday issued a notice to the Maharashtra government and permitted the AG to file an appeal against the January 19 verdict of the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court.
What did the HC verdict say?
The verdict said that groping a minor’s breast without “skin-to-skin contact” cannot be termed as sexual assault as defined under the POCSO Act. It said that since the man “groped the child without removing her clothes” the offence cannot be termed as sexual assault, but it does constitute the offence of outraging a woman’s modesty under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code.
The high court had modified the order of a sessions court, which had sentenced the accused under POCSO Act and the IPC, to three years of imprisonment, for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl.
It held that mere groping will not fall under the definition of “sexual assault”.
As per the prosecution and the minor victim’s testimony in court, in December 2016, the accused, Satish, had taken the girl to his house in Nagpur on the pretext of giving her something to eat. Once there, he groped her and attempted to remove her clothes, the high court had recorded in her verdict.
However, since he groped her without removing her clothes, the offence cannot be termed as sexual assault and, instead, constitutes the offence of outraging a woman’s modesty under IPC Section 354, the high court had held.
While Section 354 entails minimum imprisonment for one year, sexual assault under the POCSO Act is harsher and entails minimum imprisonment of three years.
The sessions court had sentenced the man to three years of imprisonment for the offences under the POCSO Act as also under IPC section 354. The sentences were to run concurrently. The high court, however, acquitted him under the POCSO Act while upholding his conviction under IPC section 354.
“Considering the stringent nature of punishment provided for the offence (under POCSO), in the opinion of this court, stricter proof and serious allegations are required,” the high court said.
“The act of pressing of breast of the child aged 12 years, in the absence of any specific detail as to whether the top was removed or whether he inserted his hand inside the top and pressed her breast, would not fall in the definition of sexual assault,” it said.
It further said that “the act of pressing breast can be a criminal force to a woman/girl with the intention to outrage her modesty”.
Under section 7 of the POCSO Act, sexual assault is defined as when someone “with sexual intent touches the vagina, penis, anus or breast of the child or makes the child touch the vagina, penis, anus or breast of such person or any other person, or does any other act with sexual intent which involves physical contact without penetration is said to commit sexual assault”.
The court, in its verdict, had held that this “physical contact” mentioned in the definition of sexual assault must be “skin-to-skin” or direct physical contact.
“Admittedly, it is not the case of the prosecution that the appellant removed her top and pressed her breast. As such, there is no direct physical contact i.e. skin-to-skin with sexual intent without penetration,” the high court had said.
(With PTI inputs)