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3 Held Guilty In Sensational Kopardi Gang-Rape, Murder Case

Ahmednagar (Maharashtra): All three accused in the sensational rape and murder of a minor schoolgirl in Kopardi in July 2016, have been found guilty by a special court here on Saturday.

Vijayalaxmi Khopade, the lawyer for one of the accused, said that the verdict was delivered by Ahmednagar District and Sessions Judge Suvarna Keole under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Pocso) Act.

Another lawyer, Prakash Aher, said that the quantum of punishment for the convicts will be argued and decided on Tuesday, November 21, by the same court. The Kopardi gang rape case took place on July 13, 2016, when a 15-year-old schoolgirl was brutally gang-raped, mutilated and killed, sparking off a major casteist and political furore in Maharashtra. The Class 9 student was out to fetch some spices from her grandmother's home in the same village.

When the crime came to light late that night, it sparked off widespread condemnation and protests across the state with different political parties and Maratha groups demanding capital punishment for the accused. The police nabbed the three prime accused -- Jitendra alias Pappu Babulal Shinde (26), Santosh Gorkha Bhawal (30) and Nitin Gopinath Bhailume (28) -- who have been found guilty by the court under various charges including rape, conspiracy, murder and other charges, celebrated Special Public Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam told the media shortly after the verdict.

The high profile case trial started before the fast-track Special Court on December 20, 2016. In the past 11 months, the prosecution examined 31 witnesses while defence lawyer Vijayalaxmi Khopade examined one witness in the case. The prosecution said that the prime accused -- Shinde, allegedly raped and murdered the victim, while the other two accused, Bhawal and Bhailume "conspired" with him in committing the heinous crime. Though the investigators had previously hyped the crime as "gang rape", Nikam later submitted 24 pieces of evidences to deduce that Shinde had raped and smothered the girl to death.

Bhawal and Bhailume were not present physically at the scene of the crime, but helped and conspired with him in committing the gruesome crime. On the "conspiracy" of the co-accused, Nikam argued that Bhawal and Bhailume were present when Shinde had teased the girl two days prior to the incident. Shinde had given a missed call to Bhailume when he and Bhawal were in the vicinity of the crime. "The entire case was based on 'circumstantial evidence' which we have proved to the court.

Though the accused may lie, the circumstantial evidences cannot lie. Besides, other forensic evidences also helped clinch the case," Nikam said. Bhawal's lawyer Khopade questioned the invocation of charges under Pocso in absence of oral or documentary evidence to prove the victim's age. She also challenged the prosecution claim that the complainant, a cousin of the victim, had seen the prime accused Shinde after the incident.

Advocate Khopade also questioned the claims made by another eyewitness - a "purported" classmate of the victim whom she (the lawyer) labelled as a "ghost witness" - that she had seen Shinde eve-teasing the victim in the presence of Bhawal and Bhailume two days before the incident. She also questioned the narration of the victim's cousin (the complainant) who stated in the court that he had seen Shinde under a Neem tree on the night of July 13; that he had chased him to his house, that he spoke to his (Shinde's) mother, and that he along with other family members had shifted the victim to a hospital.

Bhailume's lawyer, Aher contended that his client had been "framed" in the case since his name did not figure either in the first information report or the supplementary statement of one of the witnesses. He demanded to know why the girl's father, who was in a nearby field, or her grandmother to whose home she was going to fetch the spice, were not examined. Both defence lawyers argued that there was no medical evidence against their clients and questioned the veracity of the "eve-teasing" incident that took place two days before the crime.

Prime accused Shinde's lawyer Yohan Makasare contended that his client was "framed" and there were many contradictions in the police "panchnama" and the evidences as adduced by the prosecution. The trial went through a series of hiccups, and at one stage, Khopade sought to summon six persons, including Nikam, as a defence witness, while Aher urged to call Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis as a defence witness in the case. While Aher later withdrew his plea, Khopade moved the Bombay High Court (Aurangabad Bench), which partly rejected her plea to make Nikam and four others as defence witness, but allowed one person, Rajendra Chavan to be made a defence witness. Later, she (Khopade) moved the Supreme Court which upheld the High Court orders. Meanwhile, several political leaders, social activists and others all over Maharashtra demanded capital punishment for the three accused after they were pronounced "guilty" by the Special Court on Saturday.

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