This article is part of a special series: Safety of women in Indian cities
The Protection Of Children from Sexual Offences Act (Amendment) Act, 2019 was hailed by many for the inclusion of certain crucial aspects such as child pornography and death penalty for rape convicts, but predominantly for its focus on speedy trial of cases. To ensure this, the Law Ministry had proposed to set up 1023 Fast Track Special Courts (FTSC) for the speedy trial of 1.66 lakh pending cases of crimes against women and children across the country. In fact, the POCSO Act mandates the completion of the legal proceedings within a year of the incident.
However, most of these provisions remain largely on paper. In Chennai alone, hundreds of POCSO cases are languishing in different courts mainly due to infrastructural and procedural lapses. Like the Hasini case, which the Chengalpet Court completed within a year, with the accused getting a death sentence which was upheld by the Madras High Court. But the appeal is pending before the Supreme Court for nearly two years now.
Justice in POCSO cases is delayed due to multiple reasons. One such tragic example was the rape and murder in Thirumallaivoyal of a 4-year-old girl in June 2019 by a 60-year-old neighbour, an ex-army man.. The accused, Meenakshi Sundaram had raped, killed and stuffed the girl’s body in a gunny sack.
Despite garnering a lot of media attention, that probably pushed the police to rush investigations and file the charge sheet, the case is moving at the usual slow pace. “Only three hearings have happened at the Tiruvallur Court till now,” said Kanya Babu, co-founder of All India Movement for Service (AIMS), an organisation that works for the security and upliftment of children. “The law seems to be convenient for the killer, who is now out on bail and has even threatened the family.”
But the tardiness of the system has not weakened the determination of the girls’s father to continue the fight. “My family lost all happiness the day we lost our daughter. The defence lawyer is intentionally delaying the case, but I have the patience to fight the legal battle to its end,” said the father. A total of 32 witnesses still have to be cross examined before the case reaches judgement stage.
In yet another horrifying incident, a 13-year-old girl was raped by a horse rider at Marina Beach in December 2018. More than a year after the incident, only two witnesses have been cross examined till date. “There are 18 more witnesses to be cross examined. It appears that this case too, will feature among the list of long pending cases,” rued Kanya.
In fact, data from the Tamil Nadu Police and the experiences of social workers reveal that some cases are five years old.
Rape cases in Chennai
|Year||Total number of registered cases||No of cases convicted||No of cases in pending trial||True cases*||Elopement cases*|
Source: Greater Chennai Police
*When a boy and girl elope, the girl’s family often files a complaint under the POCSO Act. Hence police have segregated the number, after thorough verification.
The delay in getting justice often pushes the victims and their families into a state of hopelessness and frustration. On the one hand they want justice, on the other, they are desperate to put everything behind and move on.
In September 2017, a 11-year-old girl was gang raped by three men, who also threatened to kill her parents if she informed them. They had raped her for days, after which the distraught little girl confided in her mother. It took months for the victim to go to school, to not cry everyday and to lead a normal life. Her happiness was, however, short-lived. The legal proceedings started only around four months back and the girl is expected to be summoned to give a statement in court very soon.
“There will be cross examination and she will have to recall every minute detail to win the case,” said the girl’s mother. “I have asked my daughter to recollect the incident and not forget it, despite knowing how much it hurts her”.. The long drawn legal process has made the 11-year-old’s father lose faith in the system. “My husband is against pursuing the case further, because it affects our daughter. But I am strong,” the mother added.
Organisations such as AIMS play an important role in counselling the victims and expediting legal proceedings. But despite their best efforts, in many cases parents give up on the tiresome legal battle.
Though there are positive cases, too. “A school drop-out was impregnated by her neighbour in 2014 and the case is still on in Tiruvallur Court,” said Sherin Bosko, co-founder of Nakshatra, a rape crisis centre.“The girl resumed her education and is leading a happy life. She has become a stronger person and is patiently waiting for justice”.
The many reasons for delay
Meanwhile, Mahila Courts are flooded with cases of domestic abuse and stalking with POCSO cases being an additional burden on them. The proposal to set up fast track courts for speedy disposal of POCSO cases was a ray of hope. It was estimated that these courts would dispose of 125 cases a year at least. However, there has been little progress on this. “Every court with more than 100 pending POCSO cases was instructed to form a fast track court by September 25. Only Coimbatore has done so,” said Kanya.
Advocates add a different perspective on the reasons for delay in settlement of cases. “Corruption is rampant within the judiciary,” said N Lalitha, Advocate, Madras High Court. “Advocates bribe the section officers for the cases to appear soon in the cause list and even to hide it in order to deliberately delay the case”.. Section officers schedule the cases to be heard by the courts the next day.
Not just the judiciary, lapses by the police have also been observed.In many cases, personnel from the All Women Police Stations are unaware of the POCSO sections. As a volunteer with a rape crisis centre, I have witnessed first hand a case where a police officer took the victim for medical examination only after three days (It has to be done within 24 hours). The officer also did not use the correct sections while registering the FIR and had even blamed victims for not being ‘careful’ and ‘letting’ the offender rape them.
But former Deputy Inspector General, Tiruchi Range, V Balakrishnan said “by and large, police officers who deal with such cases (women police stations and the other officers who assist the investigation officer) are well-versed in the provisions. But a lot of training and sensitisation is required at all levels, based on suggestions from the judges delivering the verdict.”
Every department blames the other for the delays. But lack of timely and proper forensics analysys and data is definitely an issue here.
“We are still preparing to open a special forensic lab to deal with POCSO cases,” said a senior official from the Forensic Department. “All the cases from other districts come to the Chennai office, as we are highly equipped. That is the reason behind the backlog.”