The Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court on Wednesday commuted the death sentence awarded to six accused in the Khairlanji case to 25 years' rigorous life imprisonment. Two other accused who were given life term by the trial court will also undergo a similar jail term.

The High Court rejected the confirmation of the death sentence by the trial court, CBI prosecutor Ejaz Khan told TheHindu on the phone. Now all the eight accused would serve a life term of 25 years without remission, he said. The sentence would be set off against the period they had already spent in jail. In addition, all the accused were fined Rs. 5,000 each.

The order sparked State-wide protests and demands from political parties for an appeal in the Supreme Court. The Maharashtra government would wait for the court order and then appeal in the Supreme Court, Public Health Minister Suresh Shetty announced in the Legislative Council.

Four members of a Scheduled Caste family were killed by a mob at Khairlanji village on September 29, 2006. Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange was the lone survivor of the attack. His wife Surekha, daughter Priyanka and sons Sudhir and Roshan died.

Bhotmange said he was disappointed that the death penalty was commuted. He felt the Atrocities act should have been applied. He had been saying from the beginning that the attack was driven by caste hatred.

Justice A.P. Lavande, who read out the operative parts of the order in Nagpur, was joined by Justice R.C. Chavan in Mumbai through videoconferencing.

The death sentence awarded to six of the accused had come up before the High Court for confirmation. The court turned down the CBI prosecution's plea to enhance the life imprisonment of Gopal Binjewar and Shishupal Dhande. It also upheld the trial court's order which did not apply the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to the case. Mr. Khan said the High Court upheld the theory that this was a case of revenge killing and not a caste atrocity.

“We had argued for a clear acquittal since this was not the rarest of rare cases,” defence lawyer Neeraj Khandewale told TheHindu on the phone from Nagpur.

On September 24, 2008, the trial court headed by ad hoc sessions judge S.S. Dass convicted the eight accused and awarded the death sentence to Sakru Binjewar, Shatrughna Dhande, Vishwanath Dhande, Ramu Dhande, Jagdish Mandlekar and Prabhakar Mandlekar. Gopal Binjewar and Shishupal Dhande were given life imprisonment.

The judge said what happened at Khairlanji was murder spurred by revenge for an earlier case of assault involving Siddharth Gajbhiye, police patil of a nearby village. Gajbhiye, who was related to the Bhotmanges, was a frequent visitor to their house and the villagers resented this.

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