The Lede investigated whether the claims of corrupt prosecutors organising compromises in POCSO cases is true
The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 was enacted by the Government of India to provide an extremely strong legal framework for the protection of children from offences of sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography. This, while safeguarding the interest of the child at every stage of the judicial process, by incorporating child friendly mechanisms for reporting, recording of evidence, investigation and speedy trial of offences through designated Special Courts.
With 472 million children below the age of eighteen as per the 2011 Census, India had the largest population of children in the world when POCSO was enacted. Yet, with a conviction rate of less than 30%, the POCSO Act is anything but effective.
This series looks at how in practice, POCSO is simply not child-friendly on many fronts. The ecosystem is skewed in favour of the accused who walk free seven out of ten times.
In a far corner around 25 feet away from the courtroom is the office of the Special Public Prosecutor - or Special PP in Mahila court lingo.
In the background, the court, painted red stands out. Build in 1870 the court still retains a bit of what remains of the sun baked air of colonial majesty.
By the door of the PP’s office, two men wearing white shirts and black pants, one half sleeved and the other full sleeved, folded at the wrist & wearing a steel watch, parley with each other waiting for their turn to meet the Special PP.
The shimmering steel strap of the watch outshines everything else in the vicinity.
On the far end opposite to the PP’s office, two policepersons, one man and a woman, both young and lean, fresh from training, chat amongst themselves, sipping water.
In between, a small temple, with the date 12-2-1990 etched on the wall stands painted in stripes of white and red at the bottom and yellow and turquoise at the top.
Directly behind, a walled and cemented banyan tree with two stone shrines and a golden framed picture of the lord Subramanian stands protected by a small gate and a fence.
Under the shade of the banyan tree an abandoned white Tata Indica car with a bumped roof lies covered in leaves and dust. Its windows open and tires eaten, the vehicle rests peacefully on its rims. TN 07 AU 8677 its number plate reads.
The special prosecutor’s office, by the side, has white walls, contrasting the yellow ochre of the building in which it is otherwise housed. The paints have worn thin and turned white by the visitors slanting and resting their backs on to the walls. The asbestos of the roof casts a minimal shade for the visitors to take refuge under.
As the clock nears 1 pm, a man on a bicycle comes selling buttermilk. And the owner of the shining watch walks out of the Special PP’s office having been in conversation with the PP who could be heard animatedly engaging with them for some time.
“Would you drink some buttermilk?” the Special PP, a lady, asks. Behind the PP, a picture of lord Subramania beams at the visitors, Arulkoil Subramania Swamy, the words written in English reads.
“Here we get convictions mostly,” she says when asked about the generally high acquittals in POCSO cases across India. “Since my joining in the end of 2015, I have got lots of convictions,” she insisted. But she doesn’t give an exact tally although she had started with number five.
When asked again she referred me to the section office of the court (who did not reveal anything citing the need for High Court’s permission although she insisted he will and can help. Obviously we were being played. The system was playing hard to get and we a game of loops and hoopla. Fair enough; Special PP - 1, Lede - 0).
“We are tenure people. When the next government comes, someone else will be appointed,” she explains. The appointment of Special Public Prosecutors is a political privilege. “Usually tenure people work for money, but I work to get maximum convictions,” she says bursting out into an awkward laugh which first starts off as interspersed fits of self-induced amusement then overlaps and eventually overtakes her conversation altogether, perhaps intentionally.
On the left, a framed image of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa smiles from the wall. The policewoman in front, who keeps her bags and belongings in the PP’s office and who had been talking nonchalantly adding additional points to every point the Special PP said till then, became silent.
“I don’t get any salary. We get a GO of 5000, High Court PP gets 25,000. But we work more than them,” she said.
On being specifically asked about allegations of Special Public Prosecutors being involved in settling cases through compromise she says, “If we tighten a case, defense lawyers make allegations of corruption against the Public prosecutors saying they are asking for money, but they won’t care to prove it. This is just to put pressure on the Public Prosecutors.”
Pressed again she would say, “In many POCSO cases, the victims when they near marriageable age, the parents no longer want the cases to continue so they compromise.”
“We don’t negotiate without the knowledge of the victim,” she added on returning from a hearing another time. “Only when the victims tell us that they don’t want the case to continue do we call the defense and arrange a compromise.”
While she keeps repeating that it is always the victims who are willing to compromise, her record in cases such as that of Roopa* speaks otherwise.
So how does a Special Public Prosecutor deal with such cases where compromise has been arrived at? “We tell the victim what to say in court. If we don’t give the necessary advise, case won’t hold up in court anyways.”
But she insists that “There is no chance that compromises could be forced through compulsory compulsions,” as had been alleged by the police, NGOs and many others. “Chancey illai,” she would assert in Tamil mixed with English. There is no chance.
Although the Special PP would categorically deny allegations of being involved in forcing compromises on the victims, while waiting to meet her, The Lede came across an interaction underway between two lawyers and the Special PP.
The conversation turned interesting when the Special PP admonished the lawyer with the shiny steel watch who seemed to have been there to appeal for clemency regarding an accused who had tried to give money to her. The money had been deemed too little by the Special PP.
“If he had given 5000 or 10,000 it would have been useful. 2000 or 1000 and all I don’t take. It is useless,” she could be heard shouting. “I told him this. He said he is a daily wager and came to give money,” she raged on. “That was another story. He kept the money here on the table. Knowingly he is giving me 2000. They want to demean me. That is their aim.”
“I am political. I have a tenure. When the next government comes, I will leave. I don’t fear anyone,” she shouted.
“Instead of 2000 if it had been 2 lakhs it would have still been respectful of me. Ask him whether he thinks the Mahila court is some small place? Does he think that only district court is big? Is 500-1000 fees for a hostile?” she asked referring to cases of turning victims hostile.
Eventually she calmed down without much of an attempt by the visiting lawyers and asked the lawyer wearing the steel watch to give a lady’s address, possibly the victim.
“Amma (the mother of the victim) has to agree, that is the key,” she added. While taking down the address she added - “I have a fee” – in a matter of fact manner to the younger lawyer who seemed to have brought the senior lawyer to ensure her cooperation. They all nodded and soon exited her office.
This is the same lady who is appearing as Special Public Prosecutor in Valarmathi’s* case. And therein lie the troubles.
The victim has turned hostile, the police has submitted proof in the form of DNA results, the Special PP is an established player. Will the evidence see the light of day? Will the case get a fair trial even?
(We look at the role played by judges in Part 6 of the series)
(*Names have been changed to protect identity)