Three minutes. That is all it took the judges to pronounce the verdict and the six convicts to come out of the gallows. One of them smiled, looking relieved, despite being aware that a long prison term awaits each one of them.
The Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court (HC) on Wednesday commuted the death penalty of six of the eight Khairlanji convicts to 25 years of rigorous imprisonment “without remission”. This means their term would not be reduced even by good behaviour credits. The punishment is the same for the other two convicts. The High Court virtually maintained the lower court ruling, but for the quantum of punishment.
Relying on at least 15 previous rulings, the HC bench did not find the case to be the rarest of rare, and so set aside the death penalty. The punishment was eased under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
“I did not get justice,” reacted a hollow-eyed Bhaiyya-lal Bhotmange, the lone survivor of a diabolic assault on his family by some villagers of Khairlanji. “All eight convicts must be hanged; the government must appeal in the Supreme Court.”
On the evening of September 29, 2006, the villagers killed Bhotmange’s wife Surekha and his children Roshan, Sudhir and Priyanka when he was not home.
The HC sentence accompanies a fine of Rs1,000 each or a year’s rigorous imprisonment on default. The 25-year prison term includes imprisonment undergone during the trial period.
But the HC bench — comprising justices AP Lavande and RC Chavan — maintained all the other rulings of the lower court, including the IPC’s sections 201 (disappearance of evidence) and 148-149 (rioting), and, most importantly, the non-tenability of charges under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
There is no evidence to prove the existence of caste hatred, the bench said in its ruling. It was a case of revenge killing, it said, relying upon the evidence and statements of key witnesses.
The bench, which had deferred the verdict last month, also upheld the lower court’s ruling acquitting the eight of a charge under the IPC’s section 354 (outraging the modesty of a woman), since it was not challenged by the CBI, which investigated the case.
The high court disposed of the appeal petitions of both the defence and the prosecution, and overruled the lower court’s death sentence.