When the police asked 16-year-old Sunitha* where her relative Athira had been taking her for the past few months, Sunitha could not at first muster the courage to tell them her story.
At her modest house in Kerala's Alappuzha district, she finally confided to a woman police officer after persistent prodding, that she was subjected to prolonged sexual abuse by many men, including policemen.
On Tuesday, the Alappuzha police arrested Laiju, a probationary Sub-Inspector at the Mararikkulam police station in the district, on charges of sexually abusing the Class 11 student.
Earlier on Sunday, the investigation team had nabbed a senior civil police officer Nelson Thomas from Bengaluru. Nelson had absconded on being booked for sexually abusing the teenager.
As of Tuesday, the police have made five arrests in the case, including two policemen and believe that there are more people involved in the crime. Alappuzha DySP said that the first accused and the girl's relative Athira, policeman Nelson Thomas, another policeman Laiju, Prince and Jinu have been charged under various sections of the IPC including section 342, 353, 356, 370, Section 75 and 76 of the Juvenile Justice Act and under Sections 8, 9, 11, 12 and 16 of the POCSO Act.
The sex racket
According to the Alappuzha District Police Chief Surendran, the girl's relative Athira, a 24-year-old woman from Punnappra in the district, is the key accused in the case. Since the past few months, Athira had been taking Sunitha along with her to a number of hotels and lodges in the district, where the 16-year-old was subjected to repeated sexual abuse.
From young students to drivers and even policemen, the list of accused is lenghty, and many are yet to be arrested.
Sunitha is a student of a private school in the area and belongs to an economically backward family. According to the police, her father is physically disabled and mother suffers from a mental illness. When Athira's visit to the house became more frequent with her leaving the house with Sunitha at odd hours, the neighbours in the area grew suspicious about Athira's intentions.
Last week, the neighbours decided to question Athira when she visited Sunitha's house, to take the teenager out.
"The neighbours thought something was off, since Athira's visits became very frequent. They then called us and we went to speak to Athira. Even then, we did not anticipate that it will throw open such a huge crime. Even after Athira confessed to taking the girl to hotels, it took some time before the girl could tell us what was happening," Alappuzha Women's Police Station Sub-Inspector Sreedevi told TNM.
She added: "The girl remembered some of the names of people who abused her and she told us the names, based on which we began our investigation."
Asked whether Sunitha's parents knew about the sexual abuse, the police said that they are yet to ascertain the possibility.
"Since Athira was a relative, the parents did not suspect anything," the SI said.
Sunitha has now been shifted to a state-run home, along with Athira's 5-year-old daughter.