Standing against the light to hide his face, 36-year-old Rajesh* was quiet, bracing himself to give his first video interview over the sexual assault and murder of his daughter Hasini. The last 48 hours had been traumatic for the father who lost his seven-year-old child to a brutal crime on February 6.
Rajesh was informed on Tuesday that the 22-year-old accused who was responsible for shattering his family was out on bail.
A shocked father told TNM, "I was very surprised when Dhasvanth was released on bail. Everybody from the Commissioner and DCP to the sub-inspector promised me it won't happen. They said the Goondas Act will keep him in jail for a year."
The police strategy
On February 6, Dhasvanth, a mechanical engineer who was residing in the same apartment complex in Chennai’s Mugalivakkam as Hasini's family, allegedly lured the seven-year-old girl into his house, sexually assaulted and murdered her. He then went on to burn the little girl’s body, the police say.
A day later, on February 7, he was arrested after CCTV footage showed him leaving the house with a bag but failed to explain why he did not return with it.
But after this, the police seem to have faltered. They failed to file a chargesheet in the case within 90 days of Dhasvanth’s arrest, enabling him to automatically get a statutory bail. They had slapped the Goondas Act on Dhasvanth in order to buy time to file a chargesheet and to prolong his stay in jail - a strategy, that has clearly not worked.
The Goondas Act
The Tamil Nadu Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug-offenders, Forest-offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Slum-grabbers and Video Pirates Act defines a 'goonda' as a person who either by himself or as a member of or leader of a gang habitually commits, or attempts to commit or abets the commission of offence. The operative here is ‘habitual’, and the act is meant to prevent a known habitual offender from committing another crime.
Over the years, the TN police have applied the act liberally on any person they wanted to keep behind bars without making a prima facie case, let along get a conviction. In this case too, Dhasvanth did not fall under the definition of a ‘goonda’, and yet the police chose to slap him with it.
"We saw him as a threat to society. That is why," says an investigating officer.
Goondas Act - the cover up law?
But misuse of law, even with ‘good intentions’, are wrong, say lawyers. Moreover, like this case demonstrates, the strategic misuse of the law often grabs the focus away from what really matters – building a strong case towards conviction.
"The Goondas Act has been highly abused by the Tamil Nadu police,” says senior lawyer Sudha Ramalingam. “One act of crime cannot attract such a provision," she says. "It is better to get the chargesheet done with and ensure that the case goes to trial. What is important is to not prolong the case. The Goondas Act does not guarantee that," she adds.
Dhasvanth’s father had applied for his bail in a Mahila Court in Chengalpet even before the Goondas Act was slapped on him. This was done on the basis that the chargesheet in the case was not filed within 90 days. He had then filed a habeas corpus petition in front of the Madras High Court. The petition claimed that there was no prima facie evidence against Dhasvanth to keep him jailed under the Goondas Act, a view that the Madras High Court agreed with when it set aside Dhasvanth’s detention under the Goondas Act, making way for his bail from the Mahila court to come into effect.
On Monday, the Madras High Court also said that the case was being delayed by the police. The court also pulled up the police for not responding to the petition filed by the father on time, adding that this was against the rights of the petitioner.
‘We had no choice’
The police, however, believe that they had no other choice but to pursue this course of action.
"The chargesheet was filed in August. The case was such that we needed the DNA report to file a strong chargesheet. We need technical evidences to ensure that there are no loopholes as far as the investigation is concerned. We have done the best we could," an investigating officer tells TNM. The forensic lab, where the samples were submitted, took five months to produce the DNA results, he adds.
Police sources have further told TNM that the DNA and post mortem reports have strong evidence against Dhasvanth and will definitely ensure that he is convicted by the court.
‘No excuse for delay’
Experts and activists are however not convinced by their reasons for the delay in filing chargesheet, or slapping Goondas Act on Dhasvanth.
"Police in Tamil Nadu have a long history of covering their inefficiency by using the Goondas Act and other methods of preventive detention," says Dr V Suresh, Advocate and National General Secretary of People's Union for Civil Liberties.
"Yes, Dhasvanth has been accused of a terrible crime, but as per law, there is a system you need to follow. By not maintaining those checks and balances, they have allowed him to get bail," he adds.
When informed about the 'delay in DNA test results', Dr Suresh says, "When you know it is an important case, especially concerning a child, you need to go to court. Ask them to direct the lab to put the case on priority. This is just an excuse for them delaying the chargesheet."
Senior journalist A Subramani, however says the accused's temporary respite from jail will not be a major setback. "When you try to fix a time for investigation, police will only focus on meeting the deadline and not on making a strong case. Coming out on bail does not mean he has been released. With trial starting next week, the focus has to be on convicting him."