The Bombay high court on Wednesday commuted the death sentence of six convicts in the infamous Khairlanji Dalit killings case to 25 years imprisonment.
Justice A P Lavande of the Nagpur bench of the court held that all the eight convicts will undergo 25 years of life imprisonment including the period they have already spent in jail.
The case pertains to the brutal murder of four members of a Dalit family -- Surekha Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, her daughter Priyanka, sons Sudhir and Roshan -- by an angry mob in Khairlanji village on September 29, 2006. Justice Lavande pronounced the judgment while Justice R C Chavan, who is on an assignment at the high court in Mumbai, joined him via video conference in Nagpur.
This is the first time that a judgment has been pronounced by a division bench through video conference. Pronouncing the operative part of the verdict, Justice Lavande disposed of the appeals of defence as well as the prosecution. The Central Bureau of Investigation had appealed for the enhancement of the sentence of two convicts, who were sentenced for life.
The convicts had also appealed against the sentence by the trial court at Bhandara. The death sentence awarded by the trial court had come up before the high court for confirmation.
The bench had heard the matter on a daily basis from March 29 and reserved it for judgment before the summer vacation. In view of the sensitivity of the matter, a tight vigil was maintained in and around the high court.
A trial court of S S Dass, on September 24, 2008, awarded capital punishment to six persons. Two others were given life imprisonment. The six convicts whose death sentence has been commuted to life are Sakru Binjewar, Ramu Dhande, Shatrughan Dhande, Vishwanath Dhande, Jagdish Mandlekar and Prabhakar Mandlekar. Gopal Binjewar and Shishupal Dhande were awarded life imprisonment.
The CBI had also filed an appeal against the acquittal of all the eight under the Prevention of Atrocities on Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribe Act as the victims belonged to a Dalit family from Khairlanji. However, the high court did not consider the CBI plea and upheld the trial court's judgment, dropping the charges under the Prevention of Atrocities Act.
CBI counsel Ejaz Khan demanded the enhancement of sentence for the two accused who had been sentenced to life. He argued that the trial court ought to have considered evidence which pointed towards the sexual abuse of Surekha and Priyanka.
"By dropping the atrocities charges against the accused persons, the gravity of the crime has been substantially diluted," the CBI contended. But the defence lawyers pointed out several discrepancies and omissions in the evidence produced on record. Political pressure and biased investigation has resulted in the miscarriage of justice, they claimed.
The defence lawyers charged the prime witness Siddarth Gajbhiye with falsely implicating innocent villagers of Khairlanji. Even Mukesh Pusam, another prime witness, was not present in the village on the day of the incident, they argued
The accused challenged their conviction and supported the decision of the special court to drop charges under the Prevention of Atrocities Act and charges of sexual abuse.
Counsel Khan represented the CBI in the high court while Special Public Prosecutor Ujwal Nikam had conducted the trial before the special court at Bhandara. Advocates Neeraj Khandewale and Sudeep Jaiswal defended the accused in the trial court as well in the high court.