After a nail-biting suspense of 18 months, it was all over in barely five minutes for the three convicts in the sensational Kopardi rape-cum-murder case of a 15-year old schoolgirl at the Ahmednagar District and Sessions Court on Wednesday.Special Judge Suvarna Keole of the fast-track Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act awarded death sentence to Jitendra alias Pappu Babulal Shinde, 26, Santosh Gorkha Bhawal, 30, and Nitin Gopinath Bhailume, 28, for rape, conspiracy, murder and other crimes.On November 18, Judge Keole had found them guilty and pronounced the verdict under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act before a packed courtroom.On Wednesday morning, for over an hour before Judge Keole arrived, the atmosphere outside the court precincts was super-charged, with several thousands of villagers, volunteers of women's groups and NGOs, onlookers, lawyers, litigants and a heavy police force deployed for security.Barring those directly concerned with the Kopardi case - Special Public Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam and his team of lawyers, the police brass including the case investigators, the family members of the victim and the court staffers - nobody else was permitted entry.None of the defence lawyers - Yohan Makasare (for Shinde), Balasaheb Khopade and his daughter Vijayalaxmi Khopade (for Bhawal) and Prakash Aher (for Bhailume) - were present owing to a potential security situation apprehended by police, as one later informed IANS.
In fact, the court precincts had been sanitized since dawn with the removal of most vehicles from the parking lot, typists, stamp vendors, chaiwallas, and other support services common outside courts had also been cleared for the day. For the restive crowds outside, police had made arrangements for a loudspeaker to announce the judgement and even a television screen to view the proceedings inside.As Special Judge Keole entered the court around 11.23 a.m., the convicted three - Shinde, Bhawal, and Bhailume - were brought before her by police escorts.As the Special Judge took her seat and glanced at the anxious convicts lined before her - Shinde stood with folded hands, while the other two looked down at the floor before the verdict.She then announced the names and age of each convict, as pin drop silence fell both inside the courtroom and outside.Then, with a quick glance at the gathering, she opened her file and swiftly started reading out the prepared verdict.She listed the prime charges under POCSO and IPC for which Shinde, Bhawal and Bhailume were found guilty on November 18 - conspiracy, rape and murder, as listed against them by the prosecution.The verdict, pertaining to the quantum of punishment was pronounced corresponding to various sections under the laws - imprisonment for varying terms and fines (penalties).
Special Judge Keole now came to the much-awaited IPC Sections 376 and 302 (rape and murder) - and delivered the verdict of life imprisonment and death for all the three convicts.At this point, the silence was shattered as the victim's mother let out a loud wail of anguish and relief inside the court and started weeping, as her relatives attempted to console her and helped her outside.The scene outside was chaotic with over a score of television channels reporting the verdict simultaneously, standing practically shoulder-to-shoulder and overlapping both on screen and commentaries in the congested area.Within seconds after flashing their 'Breaking News' one group rushed towards Nikam who stepped out surrounded by police and other lawyers for his 'briefing' and another group lunged towards the family members for their 'bytes'.As usual, the veteran of some of the most high-profile cases in the country since the March 1993 Mumbai serial blasts, Nikam - sporting dark glasses - made his brief surgical presentation for the media, in multiple languages and then was whisked off by police to his vehicle.The victim's mother also spoke to the media, but before she could complete, she broke down inconsolably, and later, after she was calmed by her family, managed to speak, and again started weeping.
Around that time, a group of women and other activists raised slogans outside demanding that the verdict be upheld in the Bombay High Court - where it will come up for ratification - and the convicts should be hanged as soon as possible.The judge has allowed the convicts to appeal before the Bombay High Court."We shall challenge not only the verdict but the entire proceedings before the High Court, the lapses and other issues on which we have already given our written submission to the Sessions Court," the lawyers for Bhawal, Balasaheb Khopade and Vijayalaxmi Khopade, told IANS.The crime took place on July 13, 2016 when the 15-year-old was abducted, raped, mutilated and killed, sparking off a casteist and political furore in Maharashtra.That evening, the Class 9 student was out to fetch some spices from her grandmother's home in the same village."Justice has finally been done. My daughter will never return. This is the real tribute to my daughter. We are grateful to (Ujjwal) Nikam Saheb," the victim's mother said sobbing inconsolably outside the courtroom.Nikam said: "The prime accused Shinde has been convicted and fined for committing the offences of molestation, rape and brutal murder while the other two, Bhawal and Bhailume, provoked him (Shinde), encouraged, conspired and abetted in the crimes."The verdict has been hailed across the political spectrum.