In November 2017, police from Perambalur district rescued 16-year-old Shanthi*, the daughter of daily wage workers, from a forced marriage. The accused, 22-year-old Sivabalu, a resident of Villupuram district, had been corresponding with the minor on the phone for a few days and convinced her to come visit him. When she arrived at his hometown without her parents’ knowledge, he allegedly 'married her' despite her protests and allegedly raped her for two days. Police had acted based on a missing complaint from Shanthi's mother and on finding her, they altered sections in the FIR to book the accused under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
The case finally came to trial on October 10 this year in a Mahila court, but the survivor failed to recount events as recorded by the police. And the reason for her turning hostile is allegedly because of a phone call she received a day before she was brought to court. The audio recording, which is in TNM's possession, is purportedly a conversation between the minor and Public Prosecutor G Chitradevi. Though Chitradevi has denied this, the contents of the tape have shocked district authorities and the public. The woman’s voice is heard shaming the survivor, calling the accused 'innocent' and instructing the minor to not divulge details of her 'marriage'.
Perambalur district collector V Santha told TNM that she had received complaints against the Public Prosecutor and has approached the Directorate of Public Prosecution for further action. And while the Public Prosecutor initially denied talking to the survivor, she refused to comment when confronted with the details of the alleged conversation.
'It is a love affair'
In the 16-minute conversation, the woman on the phone can be heard targeting the minor with a barrage of questions, blaming her for the incident.
"Why did you go when he called? You spoke to him on the phone? Is he a good person or a bad person? If he is good, why don't you marry him? Why do you want to send him to jail?" she asks tersely.
She then goes on to call the case a ‘love affair’.
"For the allegations you and your mother have made, do you know how many years he will stay in jail? You don't know? 10 years. Not one day or two days. You are small children and it is a love affair – a mistake you have made at a young age. Girls are not punished, boys are. Even if girls love till they are 18 it is not a problem, boys only get punished," she is heard saying.
'Say that you don't know him'
Shanthi is then instructed to not tell the truth in court and to not listen to the police.
"Don't talk like how the police tells you to. Say that you didn't talk to anybody on the phone, you didn't go anywhere, say nobody married or raped you. He (accused) will come for 10 hearings. His punishment depends on what you say in the witness box," says the woman.
Shanthi got 'married' on November 13, 2017 and was rescued on November 16; but is told not reveal this information.
"Earlier, you have said that he married you on 13th and that on 15th you were taken back home by your mother. Don't say that. Say that you don't know who he is, you didn't go anywhere and that you went to your relative's house. If you say that, that is enough. I’ll take care of police witnesses. I'll tell them not to say anything. You talk like how I tell you to," the woman in the audio says, clearly asking the survivor to lie.
And to make matters worse, the minor is told that the accused is innocent and that she should have known better.
'You should have known better'
"He is very innocent, he doesn't know anything. He and his parents are falling at my feet. You must save him," instructs the voice over the phone.
"You are minor and he is major. Marrying a minor is wrong, you know that right? You are educated and have studied till 10th standard. You are aware that till you are 18, he can't marry you," she says, chastising the girl. And despite Shanthi attempting to tell her that she had objected to the marriage, the woman continues to shame her. "Then why did you go to Villupuram? You know you are not 18, then why did you go? Both of you have made a mistake," she declares.
'Not the first time'
Public Prosecutor Chitradevi, ahead of being confronted with the recording, told TNM that the police was falsely implicating the accused in this case and that it was the investigating officials who were threatening the girl and her family to level false allegations.
Legal experts point out that irrespective of any private sentiment she may have on the issue, the Public Prosecutor's duty is to help the police battle its case in court and not undermine their cause.
"This is a blatant case of dereliction of duty," points out advocate Sudha Ramalingam of the Madras High Court, "As a prosecutor, she should ensure that the accused is punished and gets a sentence. She is not a defense lawyer and this is against her professional ethics."
Police who have handled similar cases in the district tell TNM that this is not the first time that the advocate has attempted to influence a witness to become hostile. Earlier this year, in another case where a landlord had molested a tenant, the Public Prosecutor allegedly warned the woman's family to not pursue the case as the accused was a powerful man. They allege that she is taking money in exchange for getting cases dismissed.
"The Public Prosecutor is representing the police department and if she does this, imagine the effect it will have on our work," says a police official in the district, "We do so much work to give a strong chargesheet and then she attempts to get the case dismissed. She even shames a young girl and makes her think that sexual abuse was her fault. How can we allow this to continue? If this woman stays as prosecutor, victims will not get justice."
(Name changed to protect survivor's identity)