By Shivani Bhasin
*UPDATE / May 6, 2016*
Five years after the murder of Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes, a special women’s court has found all four accused in the case guilty. The accused have been sentenced to life imprisonment until death. Santos and Fernandes were murdered after standing up for their female friends who were being sexually harassed by the accused. Special judge, Vrushali Joshi, referred to the case as the ‘tragic case of two friends’ while awarding the accused life imprisonment in jail under Section 302 (punishment for murder), Section 324 (causing hurt by dangerous weapons), Section 354 (assault or criminal force to women with an intent to outrage modesty), Section 434 (mischief by destroying or moving a landmark fixed by public authority), Section 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman), and Section 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation). They accused were also found guilty under some sections of the Bombay Police Act.
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Original Story / May 3, 2016
The murder of Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes sent shockwaves through Mumbai on October 20, 2011. The two friends were assaulted in full public view when they attempted to safeguard their female friends from sexual harassment. The group of friends were near a popular eatery in Amboli, Andheri when some men began passing lewd comments and sexually harassing the women. Santos and Fernandes stood up for the safety of the women in their group and objected to the other men’s remarks. The men left only to come back later with a larger group that beat Santos and Fernandes to death. The gruesome incident led to many debates about women’s safety in public spaces, especially in Mumbai, a city that prided itself on its supposedly safe streets. In a few days, a special court will pronounce it’s verdict on the case.
The group of attackers initially left the venue after receiving firm warnings from Santos and Fernandes. They returned later with a larger group of around 20 men and began thrashing Santos and Fernandes with bamboos and knives. The friends had no time to react. Recalling the incident in an interview with The Hindu, Reuben’s brother Benjamin Fernandes said, “They stabbed Keenan first. Then Reuben came forward. They hit me with a bamboo stick on my head and I fell to the ground. I saw Keenan fall on his back. One attacker pressed him down with his knee, looked him in the eye, and stabbed him squarely in the chest. That’s the stab that took Keenan’s life.” At this point, the women and their other friends begged bystanders for help, to no avail. The police control room number 100 was constantly engaged. Keenan succumbed to his injuries on the spot and Reuben died in a hospital on October 31, after battling injuries sustained from the attack for nearly 10 days.
The public outrage generated by Reuben and Keenan’s murders pushed the Maharashtra government to fast-track the case. The collective efforts made by social media pages and the ‘Zero Tolerance Campaign’ against sexual harassment on Facebook had an enormous impact, with then Maharashtra home minister, RR Patil announcing that the state would even appoint a public prosecutor of the family’s choice to the murder trial. However, the case languished in limbo for a year. The trial finally began in January 2013, only to be transferred to a special women’s court two years later. After three years of hearing depositions and many adjournments, the court, which was meant to pronounce its verdict today, has postponed giving its verdict until May 5. Special public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam, famous for representing the state in the Ajmal Kasab trial and infamous for cooking up the outrageous claim that Kasab demanded mutton biryani in jail, will be representing the prosecution.
In an interview with NDTV, Priyanka Fernandes, one of the women present during the incident and Keenan Santos’ girlfriend, strongly criticised the apathy of all those who stood by and watched as Keenan and Reuben were brutally assaulted. She made a powerful plea against slut-shamers who questioned why her friends were out ‘late at night’. She said, “10.30pm is not an unearthly hour. There are girls in this city who work in BPOs, and return to their homes in the wee hours of the morning, when the streets are deserted. What will happen to them? Who will fight for them? Will they be slaughtered too, for offering to help? Should no one stand up to protest what is wrong?”
Valerian Santos, Keenan’s father, also came out firmly in support of the women and against sexual harassment in every form. After the 2012 Delhi gang rape case, he wrote a letter to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in solidarity with the Delhi protestors. He said that the menace of street sexual harassment is not simply affecting Mumbai or Delhi, but “the whole of India”. He demanded that Section 354 of the Indian penal code, which deals with assault on women, and Section 509, which deals with making threatening sounds or gestures towards women, be made non-bailable. As of 2016, Section 354 is a non-bailable offence but Section 509 is bailable.
Santos is opposed to capital punishment for his son’s attackers. He wants the attackers to be given life imprisonment for their act of intent. He said, “Those men have to be punished for their act. It was not an act of rage or something at the spur of the moment. The accused went, and came back, and then attacked which showed their intent”. The four main accused in the case are Jitendra Rana, Satish Dulgaj, Sunil Bhot and Deepak Tival. The additional attackers who were booked on charges of rioting were let off on bail.
Audrey D’Mello, programme director at Majlis Legal Centre for Women, told The Ladies Finger that while the judges for the sessions court and the special women’s court are usually the same, moving the case to the special women’s court is in order to “treat the case with more sensitivity”.
A special women’s court will pronounce its verdict on May 5.