Kathua gang rape: Supreme Court relies on medical opinion to reject the claim of juvenility of one of the accused

The court has attributed the rise in heinous crimes to the adoption of a reformatory approach to criminals.

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THE Supreme Court, on Wednesday, held that Shubham Sangra, one of the accused, in the Kathua gang rape and murder case was not juvenile at the time of the commission of crime in January 2018 and directed him to be put to trial as an adult.

A bench comprising Justices Ajay Rastogi and J.B. Pardiwala passed the order to this effect. It held that there was no good reason to overlook the opinion given by a team of five qualified doctors, all saying in one word, that on the basis of the physical, dental and radiological examination, the approximate age of Sangra could be fixed between 19 and 23 years.

The bench refused to give credence to the date of birth of Sangra in the Municipal record as well as the school record shown as October 23, 2022.  It relied on the communication from Block Medical Officer of the Health and Family Welfare, Hira Nagar to the Superintendent of Police, Jammu stating that no delivery in the name of Smt. Tripta Devi (mother of the accused), had taken place on October 23, 2002, at the municipal hospital.

The bench said that the medical expert’s estimate of age may not be a statutory substitute for proof and is only an opinion, but such opinion should not be brushed aside or ignored when the Court itself is in doubt in regard to the age of a citizen claiming constitutional protection.

” It is no doubt true that if there is a clear and unambiguous case in favour of the juvenile accused that he was a minor on the date of the incident and the documentary evidence at least prima facie establishes the same, he would be entitled to the special protection under the Juvenile Justice Act. However, when an accused commits a heinous and grave crime like the one on hand and thereafter attempts to take the statutory shelter under the guise of being a minor, a casual or cavalier approach while recording as to whether an accused is a juvenile or not cannot be permitted as the courts are enjoined upon to perform their duties with the object of protecting the confidence of a common man in the institution entrusted with the administration of justice”, the bench held.

The bench was ruling on an appeal preferred by the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir against the order of the High Court affirming the decision of the Chief Judicial Magistrate(CJM) accepting the juvenility claim made by Sangra. The High Court was of the view that in view of the date of birth of Sangra recorded in the Municipal record and the school record, he was below 18 years at the time of the registration of the FIR.

The bench held that the leniency with which the juveniles are dealt with in the name of the goal of reformation is making them more and more emboldened in indulging in such heinous crimes.

“The rising rate of juvenile delinquency in India is a matter of concern and requires immediate attention. There is a school of thought, existing in our country that firmly believes that howsoever heinous the crime may be, be it single rape, gangrape, drug peddling or murder but if the accused is a juvenile, he should be dealt with keeping in mind only one thing i.e., the goal of reformation. The school of thought, we are taking about believes that the goal of reformation is ideal. The manner, in which brutal and heinous 64 crimes have been committed over a period of time by the juveniles and still continue to be committed, makes us wonder whether the Act, 2015 has subserved its object. We have started gathering an impression that the leniency with which the juveniles are dealt with in the name of goal of reformation is making them more and more emboldened in indulging in such heinous crimes. It is for the Government to consider whether its enactment of 2015 has proved to be effective or something still needs to be done in the matter before it is too late in the day.”, the bench observed.

The Kathua rape case took place in 2018. It involved the abduction, gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl six Hindu men and the one who claimed to be Juveline, in the Rasana village near Kathua in Jammu & Kashmir. The victim belonged to the nomadic Bakarwal community. She disappeared for a week before her body was recovered by the villagers a kilometer away from the village.

All eight individuals were arrested in connection with the ghastly crime which included Sangra. Since he claimed to be a juvenile, his trial was separated. The other six co-accused were put to trial and on June 10, 2019, a trial court found six of the seven accused guilty.

Three of those convicted were sentenced to life imprisonment and remaining three to five years rigorous imprisonment. The Special Investigation Team (SIT) was constituted to probe into the entire matter and ultimately chargesheet came to be filed against all the accused persons. The trial took place at Pathankot in Punjab on the direction of the Supreme court for ensuring fair trial.

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