On January 4, a special Mahila Court in Cuddalore district delivered an important verdict, convicting and awarding stringent punishments to 16 people from a prostitution ring in Tamil Nadu. A total of 19 men and women from across the state had been accused in connection to this 2014 case, involving the abduction, rape and trafficking of two minor girls - 13 year old Geetha* and 14-year-old Latha* from Tittakudi in Cuddalore. After months of torture in the hands of these convicts, the two young girls not only escaped from their abductors but also went on to fight a five year battle to ensure they were put behind bars.
16 of the accused were convicted with severe punishments including four life terms for two of the kingpins. Of the remaining three people accused in the case, two of them are absconding while one woman was acquitted as she was a victim of the racket herself. Amongst the convicts was a church priest who raped and exposed the minors to pornography.
The investigation began in 2014 with merely two accused and a 'girl missing' complaint from Latha's father. But following the testimonies of the two girls, it mushroomed into a massive state wide search to bust a notorious trafficking racket. In the next two years, the Tittakudi police managed to locate and arrest several of the accused but progress was slow, leading to the CB CID taking over. It was finally in 2018, that the case even came to court.
How the girls were trapped
In the beginning of 2014, 13-year-old Geetha, an orphan who lived with her grandmother, met Dhanalakshmi, a road side idly-seller near her residence in Cuddalore district. She was often sent to the woman to buy batter and one day when the minor visited Dhanlakshmi's home she found her in a compromising position with another man. Before she could escape the place, the woman and man dragged into the quarters. The young girl was then raped and threatened.
"They used multiple ways to manipulate her," says public prosecutor Selva Priya, who handled the case. "After the rape, she was not allowed to go home. Instead, they made her sit with them, fed her some very rich food that was a luxury for her and told her that she should not tell anyone about what happened. If not they would tell the village that she was of bad character," she explains.
Following this, the couple who were part of a prostitution ring began to accost the young girl when she was leaving school and take her to service three other customers. Geetha too kept quiet due to the blackmail and when she finally worked up the courage to say no, the couple said she must bring another victim in her place if she wanted to leave. And that is how 14-year-old Latha was dragged into the trade.
"Latha just came with Geetha unaware of where she was being led to. Her father is a poor daily wage labourer. It is common for these gangs to choose girls who they know are unsupervised and scared to confide in their family," says the public prosecutor. "On top of this, they were intimidated and threatened with physical violence. They were also being given a small share of money after being raped. They were made to feel voiceless and guilty at the same time," she adds.
For the most part Latha and Geetha remained silent, thinking that this nightmare would end soon. But by June matters got worse. The two girls were abducted and made to stay in the house of multiple 'brokers' who called in their customers. Meanwhile Latha's father, filed a police complaint with the local station in Tittakudi in an effort to find his daughter.
"These girls were passed around like commodities," says advocate Selvi Priya. "Amongst the people they stayed with was a man named Aruldoss, a church priest," she reveals.
The girls stayed with the priest for two days before being moved to their next location in Cuddalore. While there, he raped Geetha multiple times and exposed both children to pornography. The priest who was also booked in the case has been awarded 30 years in prison.
From there, Latha was taken to Salem by another broker couple. This constant movement is what complicated the case for the Cuddalore police who struggled to track down the missing girls.
Infact they finally managed to come back home only because they managed to escape from a broker named Fathima's house together.
"They managed to escape after Ramzan in August. Till then they were resigned to their fate. But the abuse they were put through during the time in Fathima's house is indescribable. Unable to bear it any longer, they managed to flee. We have managed to get Fathima convicted for trafficking and intimidating the girls," explains the public prosecutor.
A long search
Once the girls came back, they were able to name most of their abusers and the women who led the prostitution rings. However, for the police, their task was cut out. Most of these men and women used aliases and in addition to this they were constantly shifting addresses. The investigators knew that they had to find them fast once the first person was caught because otherwise, the rest would be alerted. For over two years, police were only hunting down the suspects. Unhappy with the pace of the probe, Latha's father approached the court, demanding that the CB CID take over.
"When the CB CID took over, they managed to round up the last of the suspects. But two people managed to abscond and efforts are on to find them," says the public prosecutor. The two missing are a broker named Satish Kumar and his wife Tamil Arasi. While Satish Kumar raped and trafficked the young girls, his wife was an accomplice to the crime. "We caught whoever we did only because the girls were very strong and stood by their testimonies. It was not easy for them to recollect this data multiple times, " she adds.
The judiciary too intervened to expedite the case, according to the prosecutor. When framing charges, Justice D Lingeshwar, ensured that the accused were booked under the POCSO act and not just the Immoral Trafficking Act in order to ensure a speedy trial and stringent punishments.
"With so many accused from different parts of the state involved, we had to make the arguments crystal clear in order for the case to proceed smoothly. With the help of the girls, I made the charges and the role of each accused very clear in our documents and presented it to the judge," says the public prosecutor.
Their crimse were indefensible and two of the accused- Balasubramanyam and Anandraj were infact awarded four life terms for trafficking and rape. A first in Tamil Nadu, says the public prosecutor. The others were given varying jail terms with the minimum set at 10 years.
"But this won't end till the last two accused have been put in jail too. As long as these people are out, they will continue to commit these crimes," says advocate Selvi Priya.
As for the young girls, it is far from a happy ending. Their advocate says that while Latha has resumed studying and is training to become a nurse, Geetha is still recovering from what happened to her. Both of them, are now over 18 years old.
"Because of these two girls, so many other children have been saved. But till today, they refuse to be seen out in public. Latha just stays within the hospital and Geetha with her grandmother," says the prosecutor. "When I ask them why, they say they are scared. They ask, 'What if somebody abducts us again? What if one of the people who raped identifies us?'. I have no answers for these questions."
(Names changed to protect identity)