IF the crime was brutal, retribution was equally swift and harsh. Just a year and nine months into the killing of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his minor sons at Manoharpur, a juvenile court has handed a life-sentence to a 13-year-old in the case.
The court order against Sudarshan Hansda, alias Chenchu, of Keonjhar is the first of its kind in recent times. No juvenile had ever been sentenced to 14 years' detention for any crime since the Juvenile Justice Act came into force in 1986. More generally, if the order is any indication, the CBI has a watertight case and Dara Singh's lawyers have a tough task ahead. In all, 18 persons have been chargesheeted, of whom four are still absconding.
According to lawyers in Bhubaneshwar, the signals are clear-this is one case where the courts are going to be tough. But the issue is not so simple. The sentence has unleashed a debate, which is likely to have much wider implications, not only for 13 of the accused whose trial comes up in December, but also the penalty which can be imposed on a juvenile under existing law.
Chenchu was found guilty and charged under sections 147, 148, 149, 120 B and 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and is to be sent to the juvenile home at Angul. The 14-year sentence, equivalent to a life imprisonment, was delivered on September 30 by a bench of the juvenile court comprising additional chief judicial magistrate (ACJM) Sukumar Sahu and sub-divisional judicial magistrate Gajendra Mohapatra under sections 21 and 22 of the Juvenile Justice Act, 1986.
The 13-year-old has been held guilty for unlawful assembly, arson, rioting, murder and conspiracy to kill. The CBI produced 13 witnesses who identified Chenchu as part of the crowd that attacked Staines and his sons. They also testified that he was part of the group that torched the jeep in which the missionary and his sons were sleeping. Incidentally, the ACJM's court is also the CBI designate court.
It was in a joint raid of the special task force of the state police and the CBI that Chenchu was nabbed from a village in Keonjhar months after the brutal murder of the missionary and his sons. The boy had earlier been chargesheeted by the Keonjhar police in a criminal case. His case was then separated from the others, considering his age, and he was tried in a juvenile court.
Chenchu's advocate G. Acharya has already expressed his intention to appeal against the order to the High Court. He points out that under existing law, there is no scope for detention above three years or beyond 18 years of age for a male juvenile. He is confident that Chenchu will be acquitted and handed over to the custody of his family. Acharya points out that section 2 of the Juvenile Justice Act clearly mentions the penalty for juveniles, which can under no circumstances be extended beyond the period quoted.
The boy had earlier pleaded not guilty before the CBI designate court and the Wadhwa Commission. His case rests solely on eyewitnesses who have identified the accused. One of the prosecution's key witnesses is Rolia Sioren who filed the fir, naming six persons who were subsequently discharged by the CBI for lack of evidence.
Acharya argues that the case against 18 others, who were chargesheeted later, is trumped up and flimsy. Interestingly, the Wadhwa Commission too was critical of the CBI for the manner in which it investigated the case. Meanwhile, the prime accused in the Staines killing, Dara Singh and four of his associates-Mohan Sundar Mahanta, Abhimanyu Mahanta, Chaturbhuja Mahanta and Neelem Mahanta-were acquitted on September 22 by a Mayurbhanj court in a case related to looting of a cattle-truck for lack of evidence.
The sdjm has fixed October 23-24 as the next hearing in another case of loot and rioting at Kendu Mundi market involving Dara and his associates. In this case too, witnesses could not identify Dara and the others while deposing before the court on September 22. The case relating to the murder of Arul Doss, a priest at Jamuvani village under Thakurmunda police station in Mayurbhanj district, last year, involving Dara and 17 others, has been transferred from Karanjia sdjm court to Mayurbhanj district and sessions court, Baripada.
Meanwhile, the Chenchu order has once again focused public attention on the trial of the 13 accused to begin on December 1 at the designated CBI court in Bhubaneshwar.
Whatever the verdict, it will have an impact on Dara's trial.