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Suryanelli rape case returns to haunt Congress

Author: Sandhya Jain
Publication: Niticentral.com
Date: February 4, 2013
URL: http://www.niticentral.com/2013/02/suryanelli-rape-case-returns-to-haunt-congress.html

The Suryanelli rape case, which rocked Kerala 17 years ago, has returned to haunt the Congress and the UPA coalition as the victim steadily maintains that PJ Kurien, Deputy Chairman, Rajya Sabha, was one of her tormentors. With the Government taking special interest in fast-tracking rape cases and framing a rape ordinance (signed by the President) in response to the Delhi gang rape of December 16, 2012, Kurien’s continuation in office poses a moral and political challenge.

Should opposition parties take the high moral ground by boycotting the Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman until he is cleared of the charges which were not seriously probed, the ruling combine could have trouble conducting Parliament in a crucial budget session. CPM leader VS Achyutanandan has already called for Kurien’s resignation and the lead investigator, Sibi Mathews, is busy defending himself.

The case involves a 16-year-old girl from Suryanelli village, Idukki district, who was abducted by a bus conductor in January 1996. She was raped and handed over to others at different locations in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and raped over 40 days by 42 men, including several powerful persons. An outcry followed this first serial rape case in the State and resulted in the setting up of the first special court to deal with sexual assault cases in 1999.

In September 2000, 35 persons were convicted by a special court. Later, the High Court found only one person, advocate Dharmarajan, guilty of crime related to the sex trade and reduced his jail term to five years and fine from Rs 50,000 to Rs 5,000. Following an appeal from the State of Kerala challenging the acquittals, the Supreme Court set aside the acquittals on January 31, 2013, and ordered a retrial. This has caught the ruling party unawares.

A huge part of the controversy centres around PJ Kurien against whom the victim, now a State Government employee, filed a private complaint in a Perumedu court in Idukki as he was not charge sheeted in the case despite her insistence that he was one of the people who assaulted her. She has also asked counsel appearing on her behalf to consider filing a review petition in the Apex Court against its order which exonerated Kurien, as she had told each and every investigating officer in the case that he was one of the alleged accused.

In the Perumedu court, three persons testified that they had seen Kurien at the guest house in Kumali, where the girl alleged she had been assaulted by the Congress leader and others. All three said they were not questioned by the police. Social worker TC Rajappan said that in the evening of February 19, 1996, he had gone to the guest house to meet someone and had seen Kurien and Advocate Dharmarajan there. He said that after Kurien entered a room, Dharmarajan locked it from outside. Later, Dharmarajan took Kurien back.

Another witness, C Paulose, who lived nearby, said he had seen Kurien and Dharmarajan leaving the guesthouse in a car at 7.30 pm on the same day. The third witness, Kunjukutty, a head load worker, stated that he had gone to the quarters of police circle inspector, which was adjacent to the guesthouse, and had seen Kurien enter the guesthouse in a car in the evening.

On April 7, 2007, a single Bench of Justice KR Udayabhanu of the Kerala High Court held that evidence given by these witnesses could not be considered reliable, and thus disposed of the proceedings of the Perumedu court.

But with the Supreme Court ordering a retrial, the lead police investigator Sibi Mathews (now Chief Information Commissioner) is clearly anxious to protect his own reputation. He claimed before media that Police had a discussion with the then Chief Minister, late EK Nayanar, to finalise the list of accused in the case before giving it to the court. Mathews claims that the then Advocate General of the State, MK Damodaran, opined that there was no evidence to link Kurien to the case. When Nayanar sought Mathews’ view, he replied, “Only if there is clear evidence can we present it to the court.” Nayanar said, “Do only that”.

The fresh trial will determine if the police looked for the evidence and recorded it. It was this inaction that compelled the victim and her family to file a private complaint before a magistrate. It is pertinent that the Idukki court served notice to Kurien, but he went to the High Court and then to the Apex Court which ruled in his favour. Hence, the victim felt that the investigation was inadequate, and is urging the State counsel who is arguing the case on her behalf to consider a review petition against the Supreme Court’s order.

Former Chief Minister VS Achyutanandan has accused EK Nayanar’s political secretary P Sasi and then Advocate General MK Damodaran of helping to get Kurien exempted from the list of accused in the case. He charges Sibi Mathews, then head of the police investigation team, of playing a ‘double role’ when handling the case, and points out that KK Joshua, a member of the investigation team, had reportedly alleged that Mathews made a deliberate attempt to save Kurien.

Achyutanandan questions the deposition of NSS general secretary G Sukumaran Nair that Kurien was with him at Changanassery when the alleged rape took place in Idukki. Why would a Union Minister like Kurien call on Nair who was only a mid-level clerk at the NSS headquarters?

All these questions will now have to be answered to the satisfaction of the national public which is taking a keen interest in crimes against women.

The Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman feels the resurgence of the charge is a conspiracy by political foes in the party. But only a fresh investigation can now settle the issue. To facilitate this and to spare his party and the Government grave embarrassment, Kurien should step down from office without further ado.
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