New Delhi: On May 20, a fast-track trial court in Panipat acquitted Akhlaq Salmani of charges related to child sexual assault and kidnapping.
The FIR against him was filed shortly after two drunk men allegedly assaulted him and cut off one of his arms after realising that he was a Muslim. Akhlaq had been charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.
Haryana Police filed the FIR against Akhlaq on the same day when it filed an FIR against his alleged assaulters. It was the attackers who said that Akhlaq had sexually abused a seven-year-old child of their family.
The trial court judgment, a copy of which The Wire has accessed, dismissed the charges against Akhlaq and pointed out multiple loopholes in the police investigation.
The judgment said that the entire version of the prosecution is improbable and cannot be corroborated by credible evidence.
The judge at the POCSO court, Sukhpreet Singh, cited the delay in filing the FIR, suspicion over the FIR having been filed on the same day when Akhlaq’s FIR was lodged, failure of the prosecution to produce critical evidence against Akhlaq, the victim’s statement having possibly been tutored, and absence of crucial medico-legal examination of the victim as reasons for acquitting Akhlaq.
“This court is of the view that because of the inconsistencies, contradictions and the improbabilities in the testimonies of the victim, his father and uncle [the complainants], the presumptions have been rebutted. Consequently, it is held that the testimony of the victim, his father and uncle is not sufficient and cannot become the sole basis to convict the accused…the accused is acquitted of the charges framed against him,” the court order reads.
The order also questioned the long delay by the complainant in lodging the complaint and noted that it has not been sufficiently explained.
“The delay…not only gets bereft of the advantage of spontaneity, danger creeps in of the introduction of coloured version, exaggerated account or concocted story as a result of deliberation and consultation. Hence, a doubt is created upon the story of the prosecution as the delay has not been satisfactory explained by the complainant,” the order noted.
The order also noted that Akhlaq is, in fact, a victim of the complainant party, who first assaulted the accused and then chopped off his right arm using a saw machine before dumping him and leaving him to die.
Two years ago, Akhlaq’s story had become one of the most talked about incidents of hate crime at that time.
On August 23, 2020, Akhlaq, a 28-year-old barber from Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur, was reportedly assaulted and grievously injured in Panipat, Haryana.
The attackers allegedly amputated his arm and left him on the railway tracks.
According to Akhlaq, two men had attacked him in a drunken state after they saw a ‘786’ tattoo on his arm. The number signifies an invocation of god according to Arabic numerology.
“There was not even one inch on his body that was not bruised or injured. He had wooden pieces embedded all over his body,” his brother Ikram told The Wire.
Akhlaq’s family had alleged that this was a communal hate crime.
The Panipat police, however, had claimed that the case had been given a “communal angle” on social media and that the man had been accused of kidnapping and assaulting a child.
Social media outrage led to an FIR related to the communal assault on September 7, 2020. On the same day, a counter FIR was filed against Akhlaq.
While it is still unclear as to whether any action has been taken in Akhlaq’s assault case, police arrested Akhlaq in January 2021 under sections of the POCSO Act and IPC.
A quest for justice
Akhlaq’s acquittal in the POCSO case has come after he spent over one year in jail.
According to his lawyer in the trial court, Akram Akhtar, the police have not yet initiated proceedings in the case filed by Akhlaq’s family.
Speaking to The Wire, Akhtar said, “It’s sad that despite suffering a near-fatal attempt on his life Akhlaq had to remain in jail without having ever committed a crime. However, this judgment is a very strong one. The acquittal has punctured the theory of the prosecution and has opened a path for justice. It will serve as an example and also give hope to other victims of hate crimes.”
Arjun Shereon, who has argued the case in the Haryana high court, explained how the police’s investigation into the two FIRs shows its bias.
“Two FIRs were filed simultaneously. In one case, the trial is over while in the other case the police have yet to file the chargesheet. The case has not moved an inch for the last two years despite cognisance and orders by NHRC, the high court and huge media scrutiny.”
On May 23, 2022, the Punjab and Haryana high court intervened to order the state police to conduct a fair and speedy investigation in the FIR lodged by Akhlaq’s family.
According to Akhtar, the FIR filed lacks suitable sections.
“The acquittal and this good judgement have proven that there are no cross versions. We have seen this pattern in multiple cases of communal violence and lynchings where counter FIRs have been filed to scare the victims. Akhlaq could have been jailed for 20 years! The strategy is to break the victims’ spirits and force them to choose between their safety and justice. Akhlaq has severe mental health issues now,” he said.
The Wire attempted to reach Akhlaq for comment but his brother Ikram said that he was very disturbed and not in a position to speak.
Ikram recounted how difficult it was for the family to seek justice for Akhlaq, “My ammi [mother] used to cry everyday for my brother. The police asked us to settle the case and compromise with the attackers for Rs 1-2 lakhs. Would that get my brother his arm back?” he asked.
The case and the subsequent incarceration of the victim shattered the family economically and psychologically. But Ikram says that he will fight till the end.
“We were told that we can do nothing to the perpetrators. After this, my relatives and friends advised me to step back. The reaction of the police and my brother’s arrest shattered my faith in the system and even in the courts, but today the court has given hope to us. I had faith in Allah. Today the truth has prevailed and soon justice will be served too,” he said.
Ikram feels that this fight is important because it will give hope to other weak and vulnerable families who are fighting similar injustice. He credits social media in helping bring attention to this case. “Had it not been for social media, the press and our lawyers, we would have never been able to get to this point,” Ikram added. Courtesy The Wire