death penalty
death penalty

Sonai Honour Killing: “Collective conscience of society shocked,” Bombay HC upholds death penalty for five

Omkar Gokhale

The Bombay High Court on Monday confirmed the death sentence for five out of six accused in the Sonai village (Ahmednagar district) honour killing caseOne of the accused, Ashok Navgire, was acquitted for lack of evidence. 

A Division Bench of Justices BP Dharmadhikari and SK Shinde passed the judgement on Monday. The Court in its judgement observed,

“The evidence shows that accused committed the crime in the most gruesome manner. They intended to hint at, section of the Society and set example as to what happens, if one belonging to the lower caste ventures to keep relations with a girl from upper class of the Society. Thus, the totality of the facts and circumstances, clearly reflects that there is no scope for reform of the accused. The manner in which the victims are eliminated and killed has shocked the conscience of the Society.”

The case concerned the deaths of three youths, Sandeep Thanwar (26), Sachin Gharu (22) and Rahul Kandare (20) whose corpses were found at Sonai village of Ahmednagar district in January 2013.

The body of Thanwar was recovered on the evening of January 1. The mutilated remains of Gharu and Kandare were discovered the following day. Whereas Sachin Gharu was found beheaded apart from having his limbs severed, Kandare was found with severed limbs. The killings were found to be a fallout of inter-caste love affair between one of the deceased, Sachin Gharu and a girl from an upper-caste Maratha community.

A Nashik Sessions Court sentenced to death six of the seven accused for murder and criminal conspiracy, among other charges. Subsequently, convicts Ramesh Vishwanath Darandale, Raghunath Vishwanath Darandale, Sandip Madhav Kurhe, Ashok Sudhakar Navgire and others had filed an appeal before Bombay High Court. 

Advocates Yug Mohit Chaudhry, Ragini Ahuja, Vijay Hiremath appeared for convicts and sought commutation of the death sentence to life imprisonment on grounds such as family circumstances, rural background of accused, young age, absence of criminal antecedents, conduct in jail and likelihood of reform.

Advocate Nitin Satpute sought for the acquittal one of the convicts, Ashok Navgire, contending that the Police Could not find sufficient evidence against him.

On the other hand, the State Government sought to confirm the death sentence awarded by the Nashik Court. Public Prosecutor Deepak Thakare, along with JP Yagnik appeared for State Government.

Circumstantial evidence proves guilt of five accused for the murder of two

Dismissing the appeals filed against the conviction, the High Court found that in the case of five of the accused, there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to prove that they had conspired and committed the murder they stood accused of. The material on record showed the accused had pre-planned and secured the presence of the deceased on the pretext of cleaning septic tanks.  Inter alia, call records established their presence in the area of the murder apart from incriminating evidence found in weapons and other crime scene samples.

It may be noted that based on expert testimony, the Court found that one of the deceased, Thanwar, had died due to accidental drowning. However, as regards the other two deceased youth, the Court found that it was clearly established that they were murdered.  Further, the Court also found that there was not enough evidence to prove that one of the accused, Ashok Navgire, had committed any offence.

The Court, therefore, upheld the conviction of the remaining five accused under Sections 302 (Punishment for murder) and 201 (Causing disappearance of evidence) and 120-B (Punishment for criminal Conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code and upheld sentence of death penalty.

Deceptive, cruel and diabolic crime has shocked the collective conscience of society, High Court

With the conviction having been upheld, the Court proceeded to find that the present case fell under category of ‘rarest of the rare’, and thus was a fit case for awarding the death penalty. Rejecting arguments that there were mitigating circumstances for commuting the death sentence to one of life imprisonment, the Bench observed.

“All the victims were defenceless and the crime was unprovoked. It is established, the crime was perfectly premeditated and it was committed with brazenness and coldness. The accused vengeance, caused loss of three precious lives…

… If we look at the aggravating circumstances in the present case, the facts of the case and evidence has established, the offence was committed in most deceptive and cruel manner and was diabolic nature.

… Justice demands that, Court should impose punishment befitting the crime. In our considered view, looking at the factors like young age of the accused, absence of criminal antecedents and likelihood of reforms cannot be said to be mitigating circumstances. Likewise, post crime, conduct of the accused clearly indicates there was no remorse felt by them for the acts committed.””

Among other aggravating factors, the Court placed substantial reliance on the factor of the collective conscience of society  being shocked to justify the grant of the death penalty. In this regard, the Court referred to the Supreme Court’s decision in Mukesh v State for NCT Of Delhi to quote, 

“…Where a crime is committed with extreme brutality and the collective conscience of the Society is shocked, the Court must award death penalty, irrespective of their personal opinion as regards the desirability of death penalty. By not imposing a death sentence to such cases, Court may do injustice to the Society at large.”

In view of these observations, the Court proceeded to uphold the death penalty for the five convicts in the case, observing,

We are aware that the accused may not be hardened criminals but the cruel manner in which they have committed the crime and particularly the mutilated dead body of Sachin and their collective efforts to cause disappearance of the body of Sachin and Rahul has shocked the collective conscience of the Society. The present case clearly comes within the category of “rarest and rare case” and therefore we hold, the question of any other punishment is unquestionably foreclosed. On this reasoning recorded by us, we affirm the death sentence awarded to accused nos.1, 2, 3, 5 and 6.

[Read Judgment here]

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