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In a significant decision, the Andhra Pradesh High Court has ruled that if the victim of sexual harassment was a minor when the alleged acts were committed, then the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act would apply, even if the complaint is lodged after the victim had become a major.
A judgment to this effect was passed recently by a single Judge Bench comprising Justice Cheekati Manavendranath Roy.
The victim, in this case, had joined the Acharya Nagarjuna University in Guntur on September 7, 2014 when she was still a minor.
It was alleged that her seniors (accused persons) had subjected her to severe sexual harassment driving her to commit suicide on July 14, 2015. On the date of her suicide, the victim had attained the age of majority.
The contested issue here was whether the POCSO Act would apply since the victim was a major when her father lodged the complaint over her suicide.
A case had initially been filed against three seniors accused of sexual harassment and outraging the victim's modesty citing various sections of Indian Penal Code, Andhra Pradesh Prohibition of Ragging Act and the POCSO Act.
A Special POCSO Court judge, however, found fault with the police for filing a charge sheet against the accused under the POCSO Act, reasoning that at the time of her suicide, the victim was major. The Additional District and Sessions Judge, Guntur, therefore, opined that the POCSO Act would not apply and refused to take cognizance of the charge sheet filed by the police.
The case was then taken up by an Additional Assistant Sessions Judge (Fast Track Court), Guntur. Whereas a plea for altering the charges to bring back the POCSO charges was moved by the victim's father, the same was rejected. The Additional Assistant Sessions Judge stood by the POCSO court judge's view that the POCSO Act would not apply. Aggrieved by the same, the victim's father moved a revision plea before the High Court.
Before the High Court, the petitioner highlighted that the acts of sexual harassment against the victim were committed from the time she started as a first year student at the Architecture college, when she was still a minor. These acts continued until she turned a major, and even after up until she was driven to commit suicide in July 2015.
This was countered by the respondents on grounds that there was no report lodged by the victim girl during her life time or by any person on her behalf stating that the accused persons had committed the acts of sexual assault and sexual harassment against her while she was a minor.
In the absence of any such report by the victim girl or any person on her behalf, the respondents contended that there is no basis for taking charging a case under the POCSO Act.
The Court emphasised that the object of the POCSO Act is to ensure that the law operates in the best interest and well being of the every child.
While this is the case, the Court observed that the decision of the lower courts in declining to acknowledge the charges under the POCSO Act in the present case had defeated the very object of the enactment. As observed in the judgment,
All acts which were allegedly committed against the deceased by the accused persons when she was a child and not a major, prima facie, constitute an offence of sexual assault under Section 7 of the POCSO Act, the Court held.
The acts of the accused persons to stalk the victim to her native place and to make continued phone calls to her would come under the purview of sexual harassment under Section 11of the POCSO Act as well, the Court added.
Pertinently, the Court held that as per Section 16 (Abetment of an offence) of the POCSO Act, even the Principal of the College would be liable for punishment by his act of "illegal ommission" as he had not taken any action when the father of the victim had complained.
In this backdrop, the High Court took critical note that the Special Court judge had grossly erred in holding that the POCSO law would not apply on flimsy grounds and in cryptic and haphazard manner. The judgment further states,
Therefore, the Court proceeded to allow criminal revision case and set aside the order passed by Special POCSO Court.
Further, the High Court has directed the Special Court to take the charge-sheet on to the file, take cognizance of the case and dispose of the said case according to law within 6 months.
Advocate Nuthalapati Krishna Murthy appeared for the petitioner. Advocate M Radha, appeared for the accused persons. Advocate K Sai Mohan Rao appeared for the Principal of the College.