In the matter of Patan Jamal Vali v. State of Andhra Pradesh, the Apex Court on 27th April, 2021 held that the testimony of a prosecutrix with a disability, or of a disabled witness for that matter, cannot be considered weak or inferior, only because such an individual interacts with the world in a different manner, vis-a-vis their able-bodied counterparts. The Court further went on to issue guidelines to make our criminal justice system more disabled-friendly.
Patan Jamal Vali (the Appellant) had allegedly gagged and raped the victim Prosecutrix who is blind since birth. The Sessions Court had convicted the Appellant for offences under Section 3(2)(v) of the SC & ST Act and Section 376(1) of the Penal Code. The High Court by its judgment had affirmed the conviction and sentence imposed by the Sessions Court. The Apex Court was dealing with an appeal from a judgment of a Division Bench of the High Court of Andhra Pradesh.
The Court held that: –
- For many disabled women and girls in India, the threat of violence is an all-too-familiar fixture of their lives, contracting their constitutionally guaranteed freedom to move freely and curtailing their ability to lead full and active lives. This threat of violence can translate into a nagging feeling of powerlessness and lack of control, making the realization of the promises held by Parts III and IV of our Constitution a remote possibility for women with disabilities.
- As the facts of this case make painfully clear, women with disabilities, who inhabit a world designed for the able-bodied, are often perceived as “soft targets” and “easy victims” for the commission of sexual violence.
- The Court utilized the facts of this case as a launching point to explore a disturbing trend that this case brings into sharp focus and is symptomatic of – that of sexual violence against women and girls with disabilities and to set in motion a thought process for how the structural realities resulting in this state of affairs can be effectively addressed.
- In this regard, the Court set out below some guidelines to make our criminal justice system more disabled-friendly:
- The National Judicial Academy and state judicial academies are requested to sensitize trial and appellate judges to deal with cases involving survivors of sexual abuse. This training should acquaint judges with the special provisions, concerning such survivors, such as those outlined above. It should also cover guidance on the legal weight to be attached to the testimony of such witnesses/survivors, consistent with our holding above. Public prosecutors and standing counsel should also undergo similar training in this regard. The Bar Council of India can consider introducing courses in the LL.B program that cover these topics and the intersectional nature of violence more generally.
- Trained special educators and interpreters must be appointed to ensure the effective realization of the reasonable accommodations embodied in the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013. All police stations should maintain a database of such educators, interpreters and legal aid providers, in order to facilitate easy access and coordination.
- The National Crimes Record Bureau should seriously consider the possibility of maintaining disaggregated data on gender-based violence. Disability must be one of the variables on the basis of which such data must be maintained so that the scale of the problem can be mapped out and tailored remedial action can be taken.
- Police officers should be provided sensitization, on a regular basis, to deal with cases of sexual violence against women with disabilities, in an appropriate way. The training should cover the full life cycle of a case involving a disabled survivor, from enabling them to register complaints, obtain necessary accommodations, medical attention and suitable legal representation. This training should emphasize the importance of interacting directly with the disabled person concerned, as opposed to their care-taker or helper, in recognition of their agency.
- Awareness-raising campaigns must be conducted, in accessible formats, to inform women and girls with disabilities, about their rights when they are at the receiving end of any form of sexual abuse.
- Observing that in the High Court, the defense sought to cast doubt on the testimony of the prosecutrix by arguing that she would have been unable to identify the accused due to her disability, the Apex Court referring to the judgment in Mange v. State of Haryana, noted that there have been instances where the testimony of a disabled prosecutrix has not been considered seriously and treated at an equal footing as that of their able-bodied counterparts.
- The legal personhood of persons with disabilities cannot be premised on societal stereotypes of their supposed “inferiority”, which is an affront to their dignity and a negation of the principle of equality.
- The testimony of a prosecutrix with a disability, or of a disabled witness for that matter, cannot be considered weak or inferior, only because such an individual interacts with the world in a different manner, vis-a-vis their able-bodied counterparts.
- For the above reasons, the Apex Court came to the conclusion that the conviction under Section 376(1) and the sentence of imprisonment for life must be affirmed. The fine of Rs 1,000/- and default imprisonment of six months imposed by the Sessions Judge and affirmed by the High Court shall also stand confirmed. However, the Court set aside the conviction of the appellant for an offence under Section 3(2)(v) of the SC and ST Act and the sentence imposed in respect of the offence.
– Esha Shah, Paralegal