The parents have changed testimony, but CWC says the man was grooming her. TNM investigates.

A Frenchman accused of child sexual abuse in Pondy a moms changing testimonyImage for representation.
news Child Abuse Monday, February 12, 2018 - 16:03

When Vidyaa Ramkumar, Chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee in Puducherry, received an anonymous tip-off on February 7, she swung into action. A 12-year-old girl was being sexually abused by a 66-year-old French national, she was told. When she reached the residence of Thierry Gagner, a man who has marketed himself as an activist and saviour, she realised she had made it just in time.

Thierry had his bags packed, and was ready to flee India, Vidyaa tells TNM. An alert Vidyaa immediately called the police, who arrested him and booked him under POCSO. But even as Thierry was sent into judicial, there seems to be a network working to ensure that the alleged predator gets away without following the due process of law. 

A network, that seemingly doesn’t care that a 12-year-old girl has been abused, and deserves justice.

On February 9, Thierry was admitted to a government hospital in Puducherry after he reportedly complained of chest pain. The police are guarding him at the hospital.

This reporter travelled to Puducherry to visit the residence of the accused and speak to the family of the survivor, and officials investigating the case. And this is the shocking story we have pieced together.

A secret adoption?

Thierry Gagner is a French man who runs an NGO – Hopigo and Missions Humanitarians – that predominantly worked with young people, according to cached pages available of the now-deactivated website.

In the nondescript residence where he lived, Thierry had reportedly employed Surbhi*, a single mother of four from Odisha, whose husband had left her for another woman. The elderly man had promised to help the family financially – and this is where it gets murky.

The man had apparently adopted one of Surbhi’s daughters, Asha* – the child he has been accused of sexually abusing.

“Thierry Gagner claimed that he was the father of the child, and schools records that we checked, too, confirmed the same,” says Vidyaa.

“But when we asked the girl’s mother about this, she told us (the CWC team) that she had not given her daughter up for adoption. Apparently, the girl has some issue with her leg, and Thierry had promised to sponsor medical bills for a period of three years, the mother told us. Further, she told us that she had given her thumb impression on papers presented by Thierry for the surgery,” Vidyaa adds.

A statement that Surbhi would go back on, just 48 hours later.

The victim’s statement

According to Asha’s statement recorded by the CWC, Thierry would touch her inappropriately, make her watch pornography, and groomed her to believe that what was happening to her was “normal.”

When the child was asked about her relationship with Thierry, she reportedly first brushed off questions, stating they were behaving just as they would in France – as part of “French culture.”

Upon further enquiry, Asha stated that she had been touched inappropriately. Allegedly, Thierry and his sister, who visited the house often, had made it look as though walking around naked in the house and watching pornographic content together were normal under French culture.

All allegations that Thierry Gagner has reportedly denied.

The other father

When TNM reached the gates of the Gagner residence in one of the quiet bylanes of Puducherry, a man was hurriedly entering the house. As this reporter called out to him, the others in the neighbourhood quickly shut their doors and windows. And just as I caught up with the man, he asks the children inside the house to shut the door.

This is Das*, the husband Surbhi left back in Odisha, who has suddenly made an appearance in Puducherry.

“Nothing is wrong with us. We are all fine,” Das quickly says. “The newspapers are writing something and we don’t know why. We don’t know who is behind this,” he adds.

When asked about Thierry, Das immediately jumps to give a character certificate to the 66-year-old. “He is like a god to us,” Das exclaims.

“We are very poor. He helped with my daughter’s leg operation… He treated her like his own daughter! If something had been wrong with him, we would have said so ourselves…” Das says, denying that Thierry ever behaved inappropriately with his daughter.

Mother changes statement

Even as we’re speaking, an auto-rickshaw pulls up and Surbhi enters the verandah where Das and I are seated. When I request to speak to her alone, Das leaves, gesturing a quick ‘no’ to his wife as he leaves.

Before I even begin my question, Surbhi quickly says, “I have not given any complaint. He didn’t do anything. He took care of us well.”

When asked whether she had given her daughter up for adoption – a claim she had reportedly refuted outrightly just two days before – Surbhi chooses to pick her words very carefully. “We are all one family,” she says. “We all sleep together in the same room. There is no difference between him and us.”

The child is now admitted to the government hospital for a thorough medical examination. When asked about her daughter, Surbhi says, “I don’t know why they have forced her to go to a hospital and take medicines.”

So what prompted the mother to change her statement so drastically in a matter of days?

Pressure on investigators?

Even as TNM reached out to those close to the investigation, authorities remained tight-lipped.

Rachna Singh, an investigating officer said, “The case is under investigation. Anything else I might say can hurt or affect the investigation.”

TNM has reached out to the French embassy in India for a response, but have not received a response so far.

But digging deeper into the case only raises more questions for the investigators to answer:

How is it that a French national acquired adoption papers for an Indian minor, seemingly without her parents’ knowledge or permission? Are the papers forged, or have they been acquired with deception?

Why has Asha’s mother changed her statement? At whose behest?

Who is exerting pressure to ensure that the case against Thierry Gagner is killed – and will the investigators be able to withstand this pressure?

As the questions mount, the jury is out on whether this 12-year-old will get justice.

*Names changed

Note: A wrong image was used erroneously, and has now been removed.

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