Observing that acid attack is worse than rape, a special women's court in Mumbai on Thursday awarded capital punishment to lone convict Ankur Lal Panwar for throwing acid on nurse Preeti Rathi in 2013 which caused her death, for spurning his advances and out of envy over her career growth.
Preeti (24), a Delhi native, who had come to Mumbai to join as nurse in a defence hospital, died after battling for life for a month due to multiple organ failure owing to deep internal injuries.
"Considering all mitigating and aggravating circumstances, facts of this case, Supreme Court judgements and recent (Madras) High Court judgement on acid attack cases, the court has awarded death sentence," Special Judge AS Shende said.
The court also imposed a fine of Rs 5000 on Panwar (26) and directed that it be given to parents of the victim.
"A rape victim, if kept in a peaceful atmosphere, can stay but for this (acid attack cases) how would one move around with their bodies, one cannot live without bodies. Girls are scared of moving around, because anybody will come and throw acid destroying career, beauty and family," the judge observed in his order.
On Tuesday, Panwar was convicted under sections 302 (murder) and 326 B (voluntarily throwing acid) of the IPC. He was Preeti's neighbour in Bhakra Beas Management Board Colony in Delhi.
The incident occurred at Bandra Railway Station on May 2, 2013. Preeti succumbed to injuries at a private hospital in Mumbai on June 1, 2013 due to multiple organ failure as she developed severe health issues due to swallowing acid.
As per the charge sheet, Panwar threw concentrated sulfuric acid at Preeti as he envied her career growth.
The court also considered the circumstances of the crime and accepted the statements of five witnesses.
The judge held that Panwar could not explain the scars which he had suffered as few drops of acid fell on his hands.
Before pronouncing the sentence, the judge asked Panwar to stand in the witness box and asked him his age to which he said he is 26. The judge also confirmed his residential address.
Terming the judgement as historic, special public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam said this is the first acid attack case where death sentence has been awarded post the Indian Penal Code amendments in 2013.
"Preeti has finally got justice and this case will send a strong message," Nikam said.
Expressing satisfaction over the sentence, Preeti's father Amar Singh said Panwar should not be allowed to live in society.
"If he goes to the high court appealing today's verdict, I will also go seeking justice for my daughter," he said.
Panwar's sister Anju, however, claimed her brother was innocent.
"We as a family want justice for Preeti, but putting an innocent person behind bars will never give her justice," Anju said, adding Panwar used to call Preeti 'didi' and that the family cooperated with the police.
In his arguments before the court on Wednesday, Nikam had said it was a fit case for death sentence as it fell in the "rarest of the rare" category, while Panwar's lawyer Apeksha Vora pleaded for leniency citing his young age and because he was the sole breadwinner for his family.
"If he is given a lesser punishment, and if he is released after completing the sentence, other girls would not be safe," Nikam had submitted.
Mumbai police had filed a 1332-page charge sheet against Panwar, a hotel management graduate, in April 2014, and also submitted a list of 98 witnesses after he was arrested from the national capital in January.
According to police, Preeti had secured a nursing job with the Ministry of Defence at the INHS Ashvini Hospital in Mumbai.
Also, Panwar's parents often told him about his failure to get a job despite completing his education and would praise Preeti.
Panwar wanted to disfigure Preeti's face so as to destroy her career. He procured the acid on April 2 and boarded the same train taken by Preeti and her family to Mumbai.
After his conviction two days ago, Panwar's mother Kailash had demanded a CBI inquiry, claiming her son had been falsely implicated while Preeti's father had sought death penalty.
Panwar allegedly flung acid on Preeti when she got down from Garib Rath Express at the Bandra Terminus and took the same train back home. The gruesome incident had set the local police on a wild goose chase as Panwar had covered his face at the time of the attack.
The Railway Police, which initially probed the case, had arrested another neighbour of Preeti, Pawan kumar Gahalon, but set him free for lack of evidence. Later, based on a Bombay High Court direction, the case was handed over to Mumbai Crime Branch, whose investigation led to Panwar.
IMAGE: 26-year-old Ankur Lal Panwar being taken away to court where he was awarded a sentence of death for the murder of Preeti Rathi. Photograph: Arun Patil