Delayed trials in rape cases involving several accused subject the victims to repeated ordeals in court rooms besides helping the accused escape prison terms, according to jurists.

Responding to the developments in the Vithura sexual harassment case, where the victim failed to identify some of the accused in the case which has been going on for the past 18 years, M. Sasidharan Nambiar, former judge of the High Court of Kerala, said that there was every possibility of the accused changing their appearances over the years, making their identification difficult. The never-ending ordeal and the threat of facing cross examination repeatedly could also be the reason for the victim to take such a course.

It was in 1995 that the girl was subjected to sexual exploitation and the police had registered 15 cases in that connection. The girl had earlier approached the High Court for conducting the trials in all cases simultaneously. Recently, the trial court also pulled up the victim for not appearing in the court.

According to Mr. Nambiar, former Special Judge in the Suryanelli sexual harassment case, the agony suffered by the victim might have deterred her from appearing before the court.

On the identification of the accused, Mr. Nambiar said that in a large number of such cases, the accused had appeared in courts after effecting image makeovers. While some would change their hair styles, some others would appear with closely cropped moustache or beard. A few others would sport French beard in order to mislead the victim in the identification parade. The natural changes over the years in the physical appearance of the accused may also make their identification difficult by the victims, Mr. Nambiar said.

Legal commentator A. Jayasankar said that the court room developments were a sad commentary on the ineffectiveness of the judicial system. It should be treated as the combined failure of the judiciary, prosecution and the police. Even after the intervention of the Supreme Court, justice has not been done in the Suryanelli case. The Kerala High Court is yet to hear the appeals in the Pandalam sexual harassment case which took place in 1999, he said.

Another former judge of the High Court, who wished not to be quoted, said that there was every possibility of the victim forgetting the identity of the perpetuators of the crime which happened 18 years ago.

“Memory fades over the years. It’s possible that the victim might have forgotten the faces of offenders. It may not be possible for one to recollect the face of a person whom he met even one year ago,” he said.

The delay, said Mr. Nambiar, in collecting and tracking the evidences can reduce the value of the evidence itself. There is also the possibility of witnesses changing their version owing to reasons like threat, monetary influences, coercion and even sympathy for the family of the accused, he said.

Special courts for such cases should ensure that there is no delay in disposing of such cases. The investigation in such heinous crimes should be over within a reasonable period and in any case, within one year from the date of commission of the offence, he said.

‘Justice denied’

When the Vithura gang rape victim told the court that she could not remember the accused, it is the age-old axiom that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ that rang true, said noted poet Sugatha Kumari, former chairperson of the State Women’s Commission.

The victim cannot be faulted for her statement, she said. “The accused are not persons with whom she was familiar in her life. They all had sexually exploited her and left. The one person whom she easily recognised was a film actor, but he too got away for want of evidence. How can she prove the identity of others whom she had never seen earlier and who would have changed in appearance during the 18 long years it took for the trial to begin,” asked Ms. Sugatha Kumari.

The victim had tried ever since to build her life from the mental and physical wreck she was, said Ms. Sugatha Kumari. And now to revive all those memories that she was trying to forget is really cruel to her. “I do not know whether she will ever get justice, even considering that she does recognise the accused. There are higher courts for appeal. It will drag on for many more years”, said the poet-activist.

It is most unfortunate and is a telling commentary on our judicial system that has denied justice to our women in distress, said K.C. Rosakutty, Chairperson, State Women’s Commission. The victim is in mental and physical agony, and would be over the years, trying to put her life back into the system. There could be a natural reluctance, fearful of having to go through the agony again, said Ms. Rosakutty.

The new system of fast track courts is to decide cases in a year, but it has also failed to mete out justice in the Delhi gangrape case when a juvenile, by sheer technicality of a couple of months, was let off with little punishment for the heinous crime.

Activist Jyothi Narayanan said that the judge’s reprimand of the victim in Vithura case for not appearing in court two days ago was rather insensitive. All these years of delay to begin the trial was not her fault, said Ms. Narayanan.

She also had no support from the government, added Ms Narayanan. Such observations by the court send a wrong message to society and criminals. A rape victim will think many times over before filing a complaint as criminals in society move about freely and the victim has to live a life of ignominy.

The long years in bringing the case to trial only encourage criminals to continue sexual assaults on women, she said.

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