In a landmark judgement on Thursday, special women’s court judge AS Shende sentenced 25-year-old Ankur Panwar to death for a fatal acid attack on 23-year-old nurse Preeti Rathi at Bandra terminus in May 2013. Panwar, Rathi’s neighbour in Delhi, threw sulphuric acid on her just after she arrived in Mumbai on May 2, 2013 to join the Indian Navy as a nurse. Rathi died of multiple organ failure at Bombay Hospital a month later. Panwar attacked her as he was jealous of her success and because she had rejected his marriage proposal.
This is the first time that a convict in India has been sentenced to death for an acid attack. India is also only the second country, after Bangladesh, to have done so. Under Bangladesh’s Acid Crime Suppression Act, attackers can be sentenced to death.
Panwar was convicted primarily on the basis of eyewitnesses’ statements, and because he could not explain certain injury marks on his hand. Judge Shende, while sentencing him to death, said that acid attacks were more brutal than rape. The judge said, “Rape destroys the soul of the victim. But she can be kept in isolation, without disclosing her identity, and be rehabilitated. But for an acid attack victim, she has to move around with her destroyed body.”
Judge Shende added, “Preeti survived for 30 days because she did not know how she looked; she was blind. She had no idea of the effect of the attack on her face. Survivors of acid attacks look like aliens – their own children can get scared of them. This is the kind of effect acid has on the body, and a person cannot live without their body.”
According to the police, Rathi arrived in Mumbai with her father and aunt on May 2, 2013 to join INHS Aswini as lieutenant (nursing). Soon after they alighted at Bandra terminus, Panwar, who had followed her from Delhi, tapped Rathi on the shoulder. When she turned around, he threw acid on her, also injuring her father Amarsingh, aunt Sunita Dahiya, and two other passengers, Sudeshakumari Singh and Sameer Shaikh.
Rathi was taken Guru Nanak Hospital and later shifted to Masina Hospital. When her condition worsened, she was taken to Bombay Hospital on May 18. But she succumbed to her injuries on June 1.
Rathi’s postmortem report states that she died of multiple organ failure as the acid corroded her respiratory system. Apeksha Vora, Panwar’s lawyer, had argued that Rathi died not because of the acid attack but owing to medical negligence at Bhabha Hospital. The prosecution rejected the allegation and said Rathi hadn’t been taken to Bhabha Hospital.
The case was first investigated by the government railway police. After a shoddy probe, the GRP arrested Pawankumar Gahalon, another neighbour of Rathi in Delhi, but let him off as they found no evidence linking him to the attack. The Bombay high court then transferred the case to the Mumbai crime branch, which arrested Panwar on January 17, 2014 and charged him with murder.
While convicting Panwar on Tuesday, the court relied heavily on the testimony of Shaikh, who was also injured in the attack, and of another passenger, Rohit Singh, who identified Panwar in court. Of the five eyewitnesses examined by the court, three were injured in the attack. In all, 37 witnesses, including doctors from all the three hospitals, were examined.
The prosecution called as a witness a shopkeeper who identified Panwar as the person who had bought acid from his shop, and also relied on call records to show that Panwar had travelled from Delhi to Mumbai on the day of the murder.