Policemen escort one of the accused (C) in the gang rape and killing of an 8-year-old girl in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir at a court hearing on April 16, 2018. Photo: AFP

More than a year after the horrific gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir shook the nation, six of the seven adults accused in the case were convicted.

The three main accused of rape and murder, ringleader Sanji Ram, Parvesh Kumar and Special Police officer Deepak Khajuria, received sentences of life imprisonment. Surender Verma, Tilak Raj and Anand Dutta – all police officers adjudged complicit in destroying evidence – drew five years each.

The Crime Branch’s charge sheet that detailed the findings alleged that the crime was committed to force the victim’s Muslim nomadic tribe to flee an area dominated by Hindus.

The girl, who belonged to the Bakerwal community, was kidnapped on January 10 and held captive at a village temple in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir last year. She was sedated, starved and repeatedly raped for days. She was finally strangled and her head was bashed in with a rock. Her mutilated body was found in a forest area seven days later.

The seven accused were village head Sanji Ram, his son Vishal, Parvesh Kumar, special police officers Deepak Khajuria and Surender Verma, head constable Tilak Raj and sub-inspector Anand Dutta. The law enforcement men were accused of receiving payment of 400,000 rupees from Sanji Ram and of destroying crucial evidence.

News agency ANI reported that the Court accepted Vishal’s plea of alibi that he was taking an exam in Uttar Pradesh on the day of the incident and acquitted him while convicting the other six.

Sanjhi Ram’s nephew, who claims to be a minor, was also arrested by the police and will face a separate trial. The trial against the juvenile is yet to begin as his petition on determining his age still must be heard by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court.

“Welcome the judgment,” Mehbooba Mufti, who was Jammu and Kashmir chief minister when the crime occurred, tweeted after the convictions but before the sentences were announced. “High time we stop playing politics over a heinous crime where an 8 year old child was drugged, raped repeatedly & then bludgeoned to death. Hope loopholes in our judicial system are not exploited and culprits get exemplary punishment.”

The investigation

The girl was kept captive in a prayer hall, which was under the control of village chief Sanji Ram, a former revenue official. Ram is the alleged mastermind of the plan.

Ram’s nephew, the one who claims to be a juvenile, allegedly was tutored to give a false statement at the Hiranagar Police station about the Bakerwal girl’s rape and murder and take the blame himself, according to the charge sheet. But after protests by the girl’s community, the state’s Crime Branch started investigating.

The Special Investigation Team of the police’s Crime Branch in Jammu and Kashmir completed the investigation amid calls for a city-wide strike and other efforts to whip up support for the accused in a bid to delay the filing of the charge sheet. It was only after Crime Branch got the case that some key discoveries were made.

The police checked the first picture of the Bakerwal girl’s body to find a discrepancy. “The first picture revealed mud stains on her clothes, but the mud didn’t match with the spot where the body was found lying. So it was obvious that she was killed elsewhere and we had to figure out where this mud came from,” a police official told Asia Times on the condition of anonymity.

When the Special Investigation Team sought more pictures from previous records, those did not have mud stains. That was the initial clue that someone from within the police had tried to destroy evidence. Finally, the police established that the victim’s clothes were washed to destroy evidence.

Khajuria, one of the two Special Police officers convicted, played a crucial part in the conspiracy by not only taking a bribe from Ram but also raping the victim, the charge-sheet said.

Communal overtones

The case was communally sensitive from the very beginning. Soon after the incident, Hindu Ekta Manch, which describes itself as a “social welfare organization” seeking Hindu unity, staged a rally in the state demanding the release of the two arrested Special Police officers, Khajuria and Kumar.

Two state ministers from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a partner in the then coalition government run by the People’s Democratic Party, were seen in the rally and they eventually had to resign from the government due to public outrage. One of the ministers, Chander Prakash Ganga, also admitted that he was there on party orders.

The BJP also pushed for the case to be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) from the state’s Crime Branch. Even the state’s bar association called for a shutdown demanding the case to be handed to the CBI.

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