MUMBAI: The Bombay high court on Wednesday does not uphold the noose for a young convict, Ankur Panwar, in the 2013 Preeti Rathi acid attack and murder case. A bench of Justice BP Dharmadhikari and Justice PD Naik partly allowed an appeal by the convict, Panwar, and set aside death sentence granted to him and commuted it to life. On May 2, 2013, 23-year-old Preeti Rathi, who had come to Mumbai to take up a job as a nurse at INS Mumbai in Colaba, alighted at Bandra Terminus when an unidentified youth flung sulphuric acid at her. She succumbed to her injuries on June 1.
A special women’s court had in 2016 sentenced Panwar to death – the first such case where an accused convicted for a fatal acid attack was given the death penalty. The police arrested Panwar, a neighbour of the Rathis in Delhi, for the attack on Preeti. Police charged him for the acid attack as well as murder. According to the prosecution, it was an act of revenge as Preeti had rejected Panwar’s marriage proposal. The special court had said the brutality in an acid attack was more than in a rape case.
Special public prosecutor AM Chimalker said that it was a “horrendous crime against the woman”. The trial court had said that a strong message needed to be sent to perpetrators of crimes against women that such acts would not be tolerated. Panwar’s counsel had argued that his client had been falsely implicated in the case, based on “tailor-made” statements of witnesses. The police did not have any forensic evidence linking Panwar to the crime, his lawyers had argued. Defence counsels Trideep Pais and Vijay Hiremath had argued that earlier the police had arrested another man as a suspect who was later discharged by court without an identification parade being held by the police. They emphasised that since the police identification parade (PID) was not held for the arrested accused, it colours the entire investigation. .
The defence also argued that there was a register of a shop from Delhi which the police had relied to show where the acid was brought from three weeks before the attack and carried on the train but that register appeared to be new and unused. This was a point that the session judge ought to have considered before convicting him. According to the prosecutor in court the defence was “just trying to raise dust”. The HC has asked the prosecutor two questions: Why was the test identification parade not carried out for earlier accused? The second was that if the acid was shown to be procured by the accused from Delhi why did they not seize the register the first when police went to Delhi. The register was brought to Mumbai on January 28, eight days after the police had made its earlier trip to Delhi. Kanwar was arrested by the police on January 17, 2014 in the morning in Mumbai after being brought from Delhi. A death sentence awarded by a trial court needs to be confirmed by the higher court, in this case, the high court, before it becomes executable.
At the hearing in the appeal against conviction filed by him and the death confirmation proceeding, the convict’s counsel argued that there should have been a time lag between conviction and sentencing to ensure fairness. He said he had not intended to kill her, only had sought to “disfigure” her. The state has a duty to show that a convict is beyond reformation and deserves only death, the defence had argued. The HC had this March started hearing the Maharashtra government’s plea to confirm the death sentence in the six year old case. The defence counsel had cited a landmark Supreme Court ruling of 1980, which spelled out that death sentence, a punishment permitted by law in India, can be granted only in the “rarest of rare” cases.
The doctrine of ‘rarest of rare’ enunciated in the case of Bachan Sing vs State of Punjab gets tested each time there is a case of heinous murder on the facts and circumstances of each case as well as each criminal, it was argued. While there is no set parameter on which case would best fit that description, the SC had formulated broad guidelines of aggravating and mitigating circumstances which the trial court must consider while deciding if hanging is the only appropriate sentence for the convict in a given case. Awarding death sentence is always an exception the counsel had stressed while appealing against the death sentence given to the young convict. The court has a duty to address all relevant factors even if a convict keeps quiet at the time of sentencing hearng.