In a recent and noteworthy decision in Mariappan v Inspector of Police CRL.A(MD).No. 78 of 2023, the Madras High Court has underscored the necessity of establishing foundational facts in cases brought under the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO). The court’s ruling has significant implications for the presumption of guilt often associated with such cases, as it highlights that the presumption should not be invoked when foundational facts are not adequately proven by the prosecution.
The case in question involved Mariappan, a fruit vendor, who was initially convicted under the POCSO Act for allegedly committing penetrative sexual assault on a minor girl. The prosecution’s case revolved around Mariappan’s alleged act of luring the victim and her brother to his house, providing them with fruits and alcohol-laced juice, and then sexually assaulting the girl while she was intoxicated. It was further alleged that Mariappan threatened the victim with harm if she disclosed the incident to anyone. Subsequently, the victim was found to be pregnant, leading to the registration of a complaint.
Initially, the Sessions Judge had convicted Mariappan under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including criminal intimidation, in addition to the POCSO Act. However, the Madras High Court, in its keen analysis, scrutinized the foundational facts required to establish guilt under the POCSO Act.
The court Identified three crucial foundational facts that the prosecution needed to prove:
1. That the victim was a child below the age of 18 years.
2. That the victim was subjected to penetrative sexual assault.
3. That it was the accused (Mariappan) who had committed the penetrative sexual assault.
With respect to the first fact, the court verified that the victim’s age was below 18 at the time of the incident, based on evidence from the headmaster and official documents. This fact was undisputed by the accused.
Concerning the second fact, the court found sufficient evidence in the form of the victim’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of a child, establishing that she had indeed experienced penetrative sexual assault.
However, when addressing the third fact, the court raised significant doubts. Neither the victim nor her brother testified to witnessing the accused commit the sexual assault. Though the accused had admitted to the victim that he had assaulted her, the victim did not immediately inform her family or make any mention of it in her statement under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
The court also took into account the character of the victim, as it became relevant when the accused claimed he was falsely implicated. The evidence revealed that the victim and her brother were known to consume alcohol, further complicating the case.
Crucially, a DNA test conducted on the victim, the child, and the accused showed that Mariappan was not the biological father of the child. This revelation, coupled with the inordinate delay in filing the complaint and the absence of a potency test, cast serious doubt on the prosecution’s case.
Given these circumstances, the Madras High Court concluded that the prosecution had failed to prove the main charge under the POCSO Act and the accompanying charges under Sections 363 (hurt) and 506(i) (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code. Consequently, the court set aside the judgment of conviction and sentence passed by the trial court.
The court’s decision also highlighted the failure of the police to identify the actual perpetrator, despite knowing that Mariappanwas not the biological father of the victim’s child. The court expressed its concern about the true culprit potentially evading justice, emphasizing that no child should be subjected to such a fate.
In a powerful statement, the court called for further investigation by the police to identify the real culprit within four months. To prevent the wrongful implication of innocent individuals, the court directed the police to conduct DNA tests on suspected individuals without arresting them and to proceed with legal action only if the tests yielded positive results.
This landmark decision by the Madras High Court emphasizes the critical importance of establishing foundational facts in cases under the POCSO Act. It underscores the principle that justice should be served based on concrete evidence, ensuring that no innocent person is wrongfully convicted, while also ensuring that the guilty do not escape accountability. Additionally, the court’s call for thorough police investigation reaffirms the commitment to protecting the rights and well-being of children, sending a powerful message that no child should ever be subjected to victimization or “bastardization.”