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The rich can’t get away

A guilty verdict against RK Sharma has strengthened the recent trend of conviction in high-profile cases sending a clear message that the rich and influential can no longer get away with crime, reports Harish V Nair.
Hindustan Times | By Harish V Nair, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAR 19, 2008 02:45 AM IST

A guilty verdict against former IPS official RK Sharma in the Shivani Bhatnagar murder case has strengthened the recent trend of conviction in high-profile cases sending a clear message that the rich and influential can no longer get away with crime.

The fact that the top cop succeeded in evading arrest for three and a half years after the murder till he gave himself up to the police itself demonstrated his influence. During the trial also 51 witnesses, including some key ones, turned hostile. But in the end he was held guilty.

The public outcry after the acquittal of all accused in the Jessica Lall murder case including Manu Sharma and Vikas Yadav, sons of powerful politicians, proved to be a turning point in the history of Indian criminal justice system. It had in some way or the other affected the trial of other pending high-profile cases. Perjury proceedings initiated by the Delhi High Court against 32 hostile witnesses after convicting Sharma and Yadav in December 2006 in fact proved to be a deterrent to witnesses in other cases.

"The Jessica verdict was an eye-opener and the public outrage only shows that the Indian public will no longer remain silent spectators to police sluggishness, shoddy trial and hostile witnesses. Everything is going to be under the public scanner. Being rich or influential is not a passport to immunity", Justice VS Mallimath, famous for his recommendations on reforming criminal justice system, told HT.

The Jessica case acquittals shook the public conscience to the core. It brought into sharp focus a number of issues ailing our legal system and people realized how easy it was for the rich and powerful to get away with anything. The outpour of outrage was spontaneous. For the first time the nation witnessed the middle class involving itself in the process of getting justice for an individual.

Thousands e-mailed and SMS-ed their protest on petitions forwarded by electronic and pring media to every office of consequence including the Chief Minister, Prime Minister and President and others seeking remedies for the miscarriage of justice in other cases. There were demonstrations and candle light vigils. A poll conducted by the Hindustan Times immediately after the acquittals showed that on a scale of 1 to 10, the public's faith in law enforcement in India was about 2.7.

"It seems the new criminal justice rules are being authored by Jessica Lall posthumously", this remark by the lawyer of Vikas Yadav, an accused in Jessica Lall and Nitish Katara cases during his bail hearing more than sums up the existing mood.

After a similar campaign for justice, the CBI brought the appeal in the Priyadarshini Mattoo murder case out of a six-year cold storage. The High Court fast tracked the hearing and sentenced her senior in law college Santosh Kumar Singh to death.

A lower court pronouncing the verdict in a murder case against underworld don Babloo Srivastava and businessman Nitin Shah four months after the Jessica case acquittals convicted them. The duo, however, was however later acquitted by the High Court. Former union Minister Shibu Soren was sentenced to life imprisonment by a lower court on November 28, 2006 on charges of murdering Shashi Nath Jha his former personal secretary. But the HC acquitted him for want of evidence.

Relatives of the victims of the Uphaar cinema fire tragedy also benefited from the charged atmosphere. Acting on their petition, the Delhi High Court ordered a fresh investigation into tampering, mutilation and destruction of evidence by a trial court staff. He has now been arrested and investigations are on. A court convicted cinema owners Sushil and Gopal Ansal on November 20, 2007 in the fire case for negligence.

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