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Last Updated: Monday, 18 December 2006, 16:49 GMT
India's elite feel courts' heat
By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi

Protests against Jessica Lal judgement in Delhi

Are courts in India going after the rich and powerful?

The impression seems to be gaining ground here over the past two months.

That is because courts have made convictions in four cases where the accused have been well-heeled.

On 30 October, the Delhi high court sentenced Santosh Singh, son of a senior policeman, to death for the rape and murder of a female student, Priyadarshini Mattoo, 10 years ago.

On 5 December, federal Coal Minister Shibu Soren was given a life sentence for abducting and murdering his aide 12 years ago.

He was also ordered to pay compensation to the victim's family of 500,000 rupees (about $11,000).

And on 6 December, MP and former cricketer Navjot Sidhu was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison for beating up a man in a parking dispute in 1988. The man later died.

Santosh Singh, convicted of murdering Priyadarshini Mattoo
Policeman's son Santosh Singh: Convicted of murder

In the latest case, on 18 December, Manu Sharma, the son of a governing Congress party politician, was declared guilty in the 1999 murder of model Jessica Lal.

The guilty verdict has been welcomed by Jessica's sister, Sabrina Lal.

"We feel vindicated. It's a big day for us," Ms Lal told the BBC.

"My basic aim in life was that Manu Sharma should be convicted, people should acknowledge the fact that he killed my sister and that's happened today."

Lack of evidence

Ms Lal says guilty verdicts in her sister's murder case and other recent cases where high-profile accused have been punished for their crimes have restored the public's faith in the judiciary.

"When you fight against a powerful person, most people say 'don't bother'. Nothing will happen to them.

"But now, they'll say don't give up hope. The fight may be difficult, but ultimately truth wins. I can say that with conviction today," she said.

Navjot Sidhu
Navjot Sidhu: Jail term for manslaughter

Many say there is a common thread running through these high-profile convictions.

In all these cases, key witnesses to the crime retracted their statements, crucial evidence was destroyed and the accused were often acquitted by trial courts for lack of evidence.

The victims and their families lost out in India's snail-paced justice system.

Sustained media campaigns were mounted, finding out and reporting the loopholes in the prosecution's cases.

And legal experts have demanded that the 150-year-old criminal code be redrafted to deal with the present reality.

Judicial activism

The convictions of the past few days - where even a minister has been sentenced to life imprisonment - are expected to change the public's perception of the judiciary.

"The courts have set an example by these convictions," says the former chief justice of India, VN Khare.

"Earlier the accused in the Jessica Lal murder case had gone scot-free. If the high court had acquitted them again today, people would have lost faith in the judiciary."

Justice Khare has always campaigned for judicial activism in such cases.

Coal Minister Shibu Soren
Former minister Shibu Soren: Sentenced to life

In an earlier interview he told the BBC News website: "Sometimes when the police, the prosecution and the lawyers all have connections with the criminals, the judges should be slightly proactive. He should try to get to the truth, and not depend totally on the evidence provided in court."

The guilty verdicts have gone down well with him. "The wheels of justice may be slow, and there are many similar cases that still lie buried, but justice has been done."

Supreme Court lawyer Bharat Sangal cautions, however, that "two swallows do not make a summer".

He says in the Shibu Soren and Navjot Sidhu cases, the convictions are based on direct evidence, but in the Jessica Lal and Priyadarshini Mattoo cases, the high court depended on a lot on circumstantial evidence.

"The crucial test will come when the cases go into the Supreme Court as appeal. The Supreme Court generally does not give much importance to circumstantial evidence. The important thing then will be whether the highest court upholds these convictions or not," he said.

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