In a path-breaking deterrent ruling that enhanced a lower court punishment, the Madras High Court today sentenced to life R Rajagopal, promoter of the Saravana Bhavan Group of Hotels, a chain of quality vegetarian restaurants in India and abroad, and five others in the sensational ‘Prince Santhakumar murder case’.
Santhakumar the husband of one Jeevajyothi whom Rajagopal wanted to marry, was gruesomely done to death by the hotel owner’s henchmen after the former was abducted from his residence in Vellacherry in Chennai in Oct 2001, according to the Prosecution case. Santhakumar’s body was later found dumped in the Kodai hills forest on October 31 that year.
The case rocked the state as Rajagopal, along with others accused in this case, had been charged with murdering the husband of Jeevajothi, towards whom the former had developed a fancy, with an intention to forcibly marry her. Jeevajothi’s father Ramaswamy was an employee of Saravana Bhavan.
A Division Bench of the High Court comprising Justice P K Mishra and Justice Bhanumathi awarded the life sentence to Rajagopal and five of his henchmen – enhancing the earlier 10 years rigorous imprisonment awarded to the accused by a lower Fast Track Court in suburban Poonamallee in April 2004.
Allowing an appeal challenging the lower court order awarding a lesser sentence to the accused, the High Court accepted the police plea for more stringent punishment in this case. The Bench said that the Special Court had erred in not awarding the sentences under Section 302 IPC (murder). Rajagopal had committed a grave offence with a clear intention and “it was an unpardonable offence” the judges said.
The judges said they were enhancing the earlier sentence and handed down life sentences to Rajagopal and five others accused – namely, his manager Daniel, Karmegam, Zakir Hussein, Kasi Vishwanathan and Patturajan. The judges confirmed the lesser punishment given by the lower court to three other accused. The Bench also reduced the hefty fine of Rs. 55 lakh initially imposed on Rajaopgal by the lower court to Rs. 30,000 now.
In all 42 witnesses were examined in this case which was first registered on the basis of a complaint given by Jeevajothi that her husband had gone missing and feared that he might have been eliminated by Rajagopal and his henchmen. The case was later altered from a ‘man-missing case’ to that of murder and filed the charge-sheet against Rajagopal and eight others in 2002.
Rajagopal, who after the lower court verdict was lodged in jail, got bail subsequently. He was not present in the High Court today when the life sentence was handed down to him. The High Court also ordered the cancellation of bail given to all the accused. Following this, the hotel owner and the other accused are expected to be lodged in jail again by tonight.
In a related earlier case- for offences related to abduction of Santhakumar and Jeevajothi and detaining them in a warehouse belonging to the hotel owner in the city in 2001, the lower Court had also sentenced Rajagopal to three years RI separately. The appeal against that order by the Hotel Owner is still pending in the High Court.
The case had caused a sensation, more so of Rajagopal’s meteoric rags to riches story as an entrepreneur and hotelier, starting with a small eatery in Chennai. Rajagopal had struck it rich after opening the ‘Saravana Bhavan’ chain of hotels, but had an ungainly reputation of harassing several of his woman staff with some of whom he allegedly had romantic liaisons.