PRIYADARSHINI MATTOO has finally got justice. The Delhi High Court on Tuesday convicted Santosh Kumar Singh for the rape and murder of Priyadarshini more than 10 years ago.
Delivering the verdict in a packed courtroom, a division bench of justices R.S. Sodhi and P.K. Bhasin strongly criticised the judgment of the trial court that had acquitted Santosh seven years ago for lack of evidence against him.
The prosecuting agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is seeking death sentence for Santosh.
On December 3, 1999, Additional Sessions Judge G.P. Thareja had given Santosh the "benefit of doubt", although the judge said he knew the accused "was the person who committed the crime". The high court said the trial court was wrong in doing so. "By acquitting the accused, despite being convinced that there was no doubt in the prosecution's case, the trial court has mauled justice. Its decision has shocked the conscience of the court," the bench said.
The court said it was clear that the police had initially tried to sabotage the probe under the influence of Santosh's father, then an IPS officer. Some key witnesses were not examined to help the accused. But the trial judge had "quite amazingly given a perverse judgment" even after holding all the circumstantial evidence in favour of the prosecution.
Santosh's acquittal had led to strong public reaction, and had triggered a debate on whether justice was beyond the reach of the common man. Although CBI -- which has also been pulled up for its handling of the case -- had filed an appeal against the verdict in the high court in 2000, the case was brought out of cold storage only this year after a sustained public campaign. The acquittals in the Jessica Lall murder case this year added to the public uproar.
Following the public outrage, the CBI filed a petition for an early hearing of the appeal. After just 11 hearings, the court has given its decision.
The judges said the CBI had this time succeeded in "proving beyond reasonable doubt" that Santosh had raped and murdered Priyadarshini. They said the killer "will get a death sentence or a life imprisonment". The pronouncing of the sentence was deferred to October 30 after Santosh's lawyer R.K. Naseem requested a separate hearing on it.After the judgment, Santosh, a lawyer himself for some years now, was taken into custody in the court and sent to Tihar jail. His lawyer said they would challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court.
Even the earlier trial judge had endorsed the circumstantial evidence furnished by the CBI — Santosh stalking Priyadarshini, his being seen outside the Mattoos' residence just before the murder, the fresh injury on his right hand, Priyadarshini's parents suspecting Santosh's involvement.
"We are of the view that these circumstances form a chain so complete which leads us to the only conclusion that it was Santosh who raped and murdered Mattoo. These evidences are absolutely inconsistent and incompatible with the innocence of the accused," the high court bench said in its 71-page order.
Priyadarshini's father Chaman Lal Mattoo welcomed the judgment. "We cannot get back our daughter, but now her soul can rest in peace," he told the Hindustan Times. "We thank god, who gave us the strength to follow the case.
We are especially grateful to the youth of this country who stood by us and carried out a campaign to highlight the injustice."