New Delhi, Jan. 31: The Supreme Court today set aside the acquittal of all the 36 accused in a gang rape case in which a schoolgirl was abducted and passed on as a sex slave for 40 days in Kerala.
The atrocity, which has come to be known as the Suryanelli rape case after the village in Kerala's Idukki district where the victim lived, is counted among the first known cases where so many men were accused and tracked down for such an offence.
The apex court today asked Kerala High Court to re-examine the evidence in the 1996 scandal. The special bench of Justices A.K. Patnaik and Gyan Sudha Misra also directed the high court to dispose of appeals within six months.
The order came in the backdrop of last month's eventually fatal gang rape of a trainee paramedic and calls to fast-track cases of violence against women.
The judges said the high court, which had set aside the conviction order passed by a sessions court, had failed to appreciate the evidence produced by the prosecution and had instead questioned the victim's conduct.
The high court, on January 20, 2005, had acquitted all the accused, saying the "prosecutrix was not an unwilling partner" in the act.
In its brief order, the apex court said the high court had "failed to understand" that the victim might have been a "willing partner in the case of one of the accused", but may not have been a willing partner in the case of "all (the) other accused".
"It depends on the facts of each case. We therefore set aside the acquittal of the accused and remand the matter back to the high court," the bench said.
"We make it clear we have not made any observation on the merits of the case. The high court shall not be influenced by any of the observations made in this order," the bench clarified. The court said the accused in the case could file fresh bail applications before the high court.
The victim, then a girl of Class IX who later shifted with her family to another place, was allegedly abducted by a bus conductor who raped her and then passed her on to the others.
She was allegedly raped over 40 days. Some of the accused were said to have been well connected. The trial court convicted the 36 accused.
In 2005, the high court acquitted 35 of the accused and sentenced one on kidnap charges but cleared him of rape.
The victim and the state government had then both moved the apex court, which in November 2005 admitted the case.
The matter came up for hearing today after senior counsel Chander Uday Singh and V. Giri, who appeared for the victim along with advocate V.K. Biju, for the All India Democratic Women's Association, brought to the court's notice earlier this month that the appeal had been pending for seven years.
At the last hearing, the apex court had expressed surprise that the appeal had not been taken up since November 2005 and assured them that it would be heard within two weeks.
Recently, the Chief Justice of India (CJI) had written to chief justices of high courts to speed up trial of rape cases and crimes against women by setting up fast-track courts.
The letters came in the wake of the December 16 gang rape of the trainee paramedic on a moving bus in Delhi.
The 23-year-old, tortured with an iron rod by her six tormentors, died in a Singapore hospital on December 29.
The CJI has also asked the high courts to take up with their respective state governments the need for more fast-track courts and the infrastructure required.