Ahmednagar (Maharashtra), Nov 29 A Special Court on Wednesday awarded death sentence to three men convicted in the rape and brutal murder of a 15-year-old schoolgirl in Kopardi village in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district in 2016.
Jitendra alias Pappu Babulal Shinde, 26, Santosh Gorkha Bhawal, 30, and Nitin Gopinath Bhailume, 28, were given the death penalty for rape, conspiracy, murder and other crimes, Special Public Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam told the media after the verdict.
Ahmednagar District and Sessions Judge Suvarna Keole had on November 18 found them guilty. On Wednesday, she pronounced the verdict under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act before a packed courtroom.
The judge has allowed the convicts to appeal before the Bombay High Court against the death sentence, demanded forcefully by the prosecution last week.
"We shall challenge not only the verdict but the entire proceedings before the High Court, the lapses and other issues on which we have already given our written submission to the Sessions Court," the lawyers for Bhawal, Balasaheb Khopade and Vijayalaxmi Khopade, told IANS.
The crime took place on July 13, 2016 when the 15-year-old was abducted, raped, mutilated and killed, sparking off a casteist and political furore in Maharashtra.
That evening, the Class 9 student had gone out to fetch some spices from her grandmother's home in the same village.
"Justice has finally been done. My daughter will never return. This is the real tribute to my daughter. We are grateful to (Ujjwal) Nikam Saheb," the victim's mother said before breaking down inconsolably outside the courtroom.
Nikam said: "The prime accused Shinde has been convicted and fined for committing the offences of molestation, rape and brutal murder while the other two, Bhawal and Bhailume, provoked him (Shinde), encouraged, conspired and abetted in the crimes."
Special Judge Keole slapped Shinde with three years jail for outraging the modesty of the victim, a life sentence for conspiracy and rape, and death for the murder. Bhawal and Bhailume were awarded three years for conspiracy in outraging of modesty, life sentence for conspiracy of rape and death sentence for conspiracy to murder.
The three were also fined Rs 20,000 each or three months additional jail for failure to pay up, while Bhawal has been slapped another fine of Rs 18,000 for attempting to delay court proceedings for which his mobile and motorbike would be auctioned and the proceeds deposited in the court, the judge ruled. All jail sentences would run concurrently.
The verdict was hailed across the Maharashtra political spectrum.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said the trial was conducted in a record time and it would serve as a warning to all rapists.
Opposition leader Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil (Congress) said: "Justice at last."
State Congress President Ashok Chavan said the trial could be conducted so fast because of the changes in the law effected by the UPA government after the heinous 'Nirbhaya' gang rape case of 2012.
Leader of Opposition in Council (NCP) Dhananjay Munde urged that now it will be "the responsibility of the state government" to ensure that the verdict is upheld in the High Court and the convicts are hanged as soon as possible".
AIMIM legislator Imtiaz Jaleel demanded that the convicts should be hanged in public with live telecast -- as in some Arab countries.
A large number of people staged a noisy protest outside the court demanding that the death sentence verdict be implemented as soon as possible to serve as a warning to potential offenders.
Several political leaders demanded that the verdict should be taken up for confirmation hearing by the Bombay High Court on priority and the sentence of the lower court should be upheld.
The trial in the case - with the victim dubbed as Maharashtra's 'Nirbhaya' - started before the fast-track Special Court on December 20, 2016.
In 11 months, the prosecution examined 31 witnesses while defence lawyer Vijayalaxmi Khopade examined one witness.
The prosecution said the prime accused, Shinde, allegedly raped and murdered the victim while the other two, Bhawal and Bhailume, "conspired and instigated" with Shinde in committing the crime.
Though the police had previously hyped it as a "gang rape", Nikam later submitted 24 pieces of evidence to deduce that Shinde had raped and smothered the girl to death.
On the "conspiracy" of the co-accused, Nikam argued that Bhawal and Bhailume were present when Shinde had teased the girl two days prior to the incident. Shinde had given a missed call to Bhailume when he and Bhawal were in the vicinity of the crime.
"The entire case was based on 'circumstantial evidence' which we have proved to the court. Though the accused may lie, circumstantial evidences can't lie. Besides, other forensic evidences also helped clinch the case," Nikam said.
The prosecution lawyers - Yohan Makasare, Khopades and Prakash Aher - argued that their clients were framed - and plan to challenge the verdict.