The Bombay High Court Wednesday upheld the conviction of a 25-year-old man in the 2013 Preeti Rathi acid attack and murder case here, but commuted his death penalty to life imprisonment saying the trial court erred as he was a young boy and there was no past criminal record. A division bench of justices B P Dharmadhikari and P D Naik partly allowed the appeal filed by the convict, Ankur Panwar, challenging the death penalty awarded to him in 2016 by a special court in the sensational case which was an outcome of jealously and rejection.
It was the first instance of death penalty being awarded by a court in the country in a case of acid attack. "The conviction under section 302 (murder) and 326 (b) (voluntarily causing grievous hurt by use of acid) is upheld. The death sentence is commuted to life imprisonment," the bench said.
Rathi, a 23-year-old nurse and Delhi resident, who was to join an Indian Navy hospital in Mumbai, died after an acid attack here in May 2013 by her stalker Panwar. The convict was Rathi's neighbour in Delhi. On May 2, 2013, as Rathi got off a train from Delhi at the Bandra Terminus here, Panwar, who was following her, threw acid on her face.
Rathi lost her vision and sustained major injuries due to the brutal attack. She spent a month in various hospitals, and on June 1, died of multiple organ failure at Bombay Hospital.
Panwar was arrested by the police and tried in a special court which pronounced him guilty in the case which had attracted nationwide attention. "There is sufficient evidence to prove the offences under sections 302 and 326 (B) of IPC," the court said in its judgment.
"We are of the considered opinion that the prosecution has clearly established that the accused-appellant is involved in commission of crime," the bench added. "The overt act attributed to the accused, the preparation made to commit the crime, the manner in which acid was plunged on the face of the victim, the nature of injuries, opinion expressed by medical officers, cause of death would indicate that the accused had intention to commit murder.
"He (Panwar) plunged acid on the face which resulted in her death," the HC judges said. The high court, however, was of the opinion that the trial court had erred in imposing the death penalty on the convict and said it had not applied its mind and failed to consider the mitigating circumstances before imposing harsh punishment like death.
"The accused was a young boy aged about 23 years. There is no past criminal record," the bench noted. "Taking into consideration all the circumstances, we do not find that the present case can be termed as 'rarest of rare' case and hence the appellant does not deserve death penalty," the HC said.
While awarding the death penalty to Panwar, the trial court had observed that "acid attack is worse than rape". Panwar, in his appeal, had claimed he should not have been awarded the death penalty since the prosecution in the case did not have a "reliable" case.
His plea claimed that while the prosecution relied mainly on the statements of eyewitnesses and some relatives of the victim, it was apparent that some of the statements were incorrect and had been "tailor-made" to suit its case. The defence team claimed the police had also failed to take any fingerprints from the acid bottle, and therefore, had no forensic evidence linking Panwar to the crime.
As per the prosecution, Panwar, who had followed Rathi to Mumbai from Delhi on the same train, had attacked her as he was jealous of her success, and because she had rejected his marriage proposal. The police initially arrested Pawan Kumar Gahalon, Rathi's neighbour in Delhi.
However, Gahalon was let off as the police didn't find any evidence against him. The case was transferred to the Mumbai Crime Branch following an order of the high court.
The Crime Branch had arrested Panwar primarily on the basis of the statements given by key eyewitnesses, including Rathi's father, her uncle (who were with her at the time of the incident), and two other co-train passengers. These four eyewitnesses had also suffered injuries in the acid attack.
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