The Bombay High Court on Tuesday commuted the death sentences on two prime accused – both step-sisters – to life term till death in jail, in the sensational case of the kidnapping of 13 minor children and murdering at least 5 of them, that rocked the state in the early 1990s.
The accused, Seema Mohan Gavit, 39, and Renuka Kiran Shinde, 45, were arrested by Maharashtra Police in 1996 and have so far spent around 25 years under the shadow of the hangman’s noose, at the Yerawada Central Jail, Pune.
Another prime accused and their mother, Anjana, who was also arrested and charged in the case, passed away in 1998 during the pendency of the trial.
A division bench of Justice Nitin Jamdar and Justice Sarang Kotwal commuted the death penalty, rapping the delays by the government authorities in taking a decision on the mercy pleas of the two.
In 2001, the half-sisters were convicted and awarded the death penalty by the Kolhapur Sessions Court for the stunning kidnappings of 13 children and killing 5 of them brutally.
The death sentence was confirmed by the Bombay High Court in 2004 and then the Supreme Court in 2006.
The sisters had earlier filed mercy pleas before the Governor in 2008 that were declined in August 2013, and later to the President, which was rejected in July 2014, even as people from the USA Japan, Canada, and India appealed to the President for commuting the death verdict, saying that execution of women is extremely rare.
After the rejection of their appeals from both the Governor and the President, they moved the Bombay High Court.
The matter was taken up urgently on August 19, 2014, as the two sisters awaited the gallows that day.
The Public Prosecutor issued telephonic instructions to the YCJ Jail Superintendent Yogesh Desai to stop the hangings till their pleas were heard and the matter came up on the board the following day.
The petitioners contended that the government machinery did not adhere to the rules that required utmost expediency and resorted to a “most casual approach” resulting in a delay of nearly 8 years, which the division bench upheld.
The sisters contended, through their lawyer Aniket Vagal, that the delay was attributable to the executive including the Governor and the Maharashtra Government, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the President, which was denied by the Centre’s lawyer Sandesh Patil.
The judges noted that from the date of the sisters submitting their mercy plea on September 1, 2006 till it was finally disposed of on July 30, 2014, it took 7 years, 10 months and 15 days.
Justice Jamdar and Justice Kotwal also observed how the chronology showed that there was “nothing but the movement of files, delay, and casual approach demonstrated at each stage” and the state government moved “as if it was a routine file, perhaps even slower than that”, at each stage “officers exhibited utter casualness”.
The court also frowned at how, in the period between 2006-2014, modern electronic communication facilities, email, courier, transportation were easily available to all government officers, and termed as “abhorrent” the movement of files/papers in such a crucial matter within the state or the city after gaps of 15 days, month, six months or up to one year.
It also commented on how the matter was circulated before the court only by the petitioner-sisters in 2021 and not by the government since 2016, and the manner in which the two convicts were kept isolated in the ‘Death Convict Yard’ which has an ominous connotation, and was described as “brooding horror of hanging, daunting the prisoner in the condemned cell” by the late Justice Krishna Iyer.
However, the evidence on record shows the kids were brutally murdered, showing the “depravity” of the two convict-sisters which was “heinous and beyond words to condemn”, the bench said, ordering “life imprisonment is till the life of the convict” unless the competent authority decides otherwise, though the (convicts) were beyond reform for society.
The court also cancelled the unexecuted death warrants against the two sisters and disposed of the petition.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at email@example.com)