New Delhi: Three AIADMK workers were on Friday sentenced to death and 25 others to seven years imprisonment in the Dharmapuri bus burning case, in which three college girls were charred to death in February 2000.
A court in Salem on Thursday had found the three - Neduthezhian , Madhu and Muniappan - and 25 other party workers guilty of burning a bus carrying Tamil Nadu Agricultural University students in 2000. The AIADMK workers were protesting the conviction of their leader Jayalalithaa in the Kodaikanal Pleasant Stay Hotel case.
The Additional District Sessions Judge D Krishna Raj said that the three death sentence awardees are required to pay a fine of Rs 59,000 each for various offences including attempt to murder, the 25 others are required to pay a fine of Rs 13,000 each for offences including attempt to murder.
There were a total of 31 accused in the case. While two were acquitted, one person died during the trial. The death sentence has been awarded after a lapse of 27 years in this court.
The court wants this to be a message to the state that political riots, where innocent civilians become victims of political sycophancy, will be dealt with harshly.
"This was a gruesome incident and the general opinion was that it was not Jayalalithaa but some people who wanted to show their loyalty to her who are responsible for it," editor of Tamil political weekly, Tuglak and Rajya Sabha member Cho Ramaswamy told CNN-IBN.
"This is not a rare case, but the first time that a punishment has be meted out in a case where a political party workers were involved," he added.
While agreeing there had been many obstacles during the case investigations, DIG (Crime Branch CID) S Rajendran pointed out that 20 witnesses had turned hostile during the long trial. "The verdict is a lesson to criminals across the country who indulge in such gruesome crimes," he added.
DIG, Crime Branch, S Rajendran told CNN-IBN, "We had a lot of obstacles in the case in the form of official problems from 2000 till today. We went through a cumbersome legal process, filing petitions and counter-petitions. It took a lot of effort from the public prosecutor and our team in making this a reality. We had 20 hostile witnesses and then we got the case transferred to a special court. We instilled confidence in the witnesses by explaining to them the brutality of the daylight murder."
A near 30-minute video clipping of the bus burning incident shot by a Dharmapuri-based private photographer was one of prime piece of evidence that established the prosecution's case at the court of the Salem First Additional District Sessions Judge D Krishna Raja.
The clipping showed the burning bus and the girls crying for help and their friends' frantic efforts to save them. It also showed a white police jeep that did not stop while passing through the spot.
Over the years, there have been allegations of evidence being tampered with. The trial in the case did not start till September 2004, and then, too, only when the parents of one of the victims asked for the case to be shifted from Dharmapuri to Salem.
The six-year wait
The verdict in the case comes after a six-year-long trial. In 2003, the Madras High Court had scrapped the on-going trial in a Krishnagiri court and ordered a retrial in a Salem court following a petition that said the sensational bus burning case was going the Best Bakery way at the Krishnagiri court.
The girls were students of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and were on a tour with a group of other students on February 2, 2000, the day former state chief minister J Jayalalithaa was convicted in the Kodaikanal Pleasant Stay Hotel case. Jayalalithaa was sentenced to two years of imprisonment.
When the group reached Dharmapuri, the group heard about the verdict. Fearing riots, the two buses - one with girls and the other with boys - started heading towards a police station, but were intercepted on the way by a mob comprising AIADMK workers.
The mob sprinkled kerosene on the bus carrying the girls and set it on fire. Most of the students and faculty managed to escape but three girls were trapped and charred to death.
After the verdict on Friday, there has been studied silence on the political front. And DMK finds itself in a corner over the verdict as the party had stood against the death penalty as a form of punishment in the Afzal Guru case.