‘Kerala High Court did not consider evidence in first appeal independently’

The Supreme Court on Thursday set aside a January 2005 Kerala High Court judgment acquitting all 35 persons except the prime accused S.S. Dharmarajan in the Suryanelli sex scandal case. The case relates to the abduction of and sexual assault on a minor girl by several men over a period of 40 days in 1996.

A Bench of Justices A.K. Patnaik and Gyan Sudha Misra ordered the High Court to hear the appeal afresh and dispose of it in six months. The Bench directed all the accused to file fresh bail applications before the High Court in four weeks and asked it to pass appropriate orders uninfluenced by the Supreme Court’s orders.

The prosecution case was that the 16-year-old schoolgirl from Suryanelli in Idukki district was enticed, abducted and sexually exploited by a bus conductor on January 16, 1996. She was later handed over to two others, including the prime accused who was a lawyer. The duo presented her to several men. Her abductors released the girl on February 26, 1996.

On September 6, 2000, a special court sentenced the 35 accused to rigorous imprisonment for varying terms. The first accused, conductor Raju, and the second accused, Usha, were sentenced to 13- year RI with fine, and an additional jail term of four years, on different counts. Dharmarajan had been absconding, but was arrested later. The trial court convicted all the 35 accused of rape, gang rape and kidnapping, but the High Court acquitted all of them except one. Special leave petitions (SLPs) were filed in the Supreme Court by the Kerala government and the victim, for restoring the punishment imposed by the trial court.

Earlier, senior counsel Padmanabhan Nair, appearing for Kerala, said the High Court was wrong in acquitting the accused relying on the evidence in the second appeal pertaining to Dharmarajan.

In its order, the Bench said there was force in counsel’s argument that the evidence in the first appeal was not considered by the High Court independently. Further, the conclusion arrived at by the High Court — “there is no convincing evidence to show that she was not an unwilling partner in sexual intercourse. The claim of the accused to at least the benefit of the doubt has to be considered anxiously.” — might be true for one accused but not for all the others. The Bench asked the High Court consider the bail applications on their merits.

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