A wealthy playboy tried for killing an ex-model walked free, but police have been forced to hold an inquiry, reports Amelia Gentleman in Delhi
Sunday March 12, 2006, The Observer
No one knows for certain why Jessica Lall refused to serve a drink to Manu Sharma, the playboy son of a rich Indian politician, some time after 2am in April 1999. It might have been that he was drunk or the bar was closing. Whatever her reasoning, it was a mistake. According to witnesses at the time, Sharma took out a gun and fired once at the ceiling and once at Lall’s head.
There were about 100 people in the fashionable south Delhi restaurant and dozens witnessed the murder. The case against the accused should have been watertight. Yet for Lall’s family there was a depressing predictability about the court’s decision seven years later to acquit Sharma and eight others on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
Less expected was the national outrage the case has triggered. Abandoning the customary cynicism about the flawed legal system and corrupt police force, much of India was united last week in anger at the way this case exposed once again how the law works to serve the rich and influential. So brazen was this miscarriage of justice that Jessica Lall has become a potent symbol of the underdog failed by the system.
‘We had given up hope of getting justice some time back,’ Lall’s younger sister Sabrina said yesterday. ‘Jessica was from an average middle-class family. The accused were from affluent, well-connected, politically influential families – precisely the kind of people you expect to be let off by the courts. I think people just can’t believe it has happened again.’
The media have been vehement in condemnation. ‘A travesty of justice,’ the Hindustan Times raged in an editorial, adding: ‘Our entire ruling establishment has been so thoroughly corrupted that each limb of it is amenable to being deflected by money or influence.’ In a poll by the paper 95 per cent of those asked ‘believed that the rich and mighty can get away with murder in India’.
Vigils were held in sympathy with Lall’s family. The English-language news channel NDTV organised a petition, attracting more than 220,000 text messages urging a retrial. Even the Supreme Court conceded: ‘People have started feeling that criminal trials are like a cobweb where small flies are getting caught and big people are dashing through.’
On the night of her death, Lall, 34, a former model, was serving drinks as a favour to the restaurant’s owner, a fashion designer and Delhi socialite. Sharma, the son of a senior politician in the ruling Congress party, made rich by his sugar-mill business, fled after the shooting, accompanied by friends, among them Vikas Yadav, another son of a leading Congress politician. It was six days before Sharma gave himself up to the police.
The key witness, a struggling male model who had been standing next to Lall, identified Sharma as the killer in a police interview. But he later claimed the testimony, written in Hindi, was not his words and said he did not speak Hindi. Sceptical observers point out he has since appeared speaking fluent Hindi in a Bollywood film. Two other key witnesses also changed their evidence in the years after the murder.
‘I know the witnesses were bought. One of them told me he had been approached by a middleman offering him money to change his story,’ Sabrina Lall said. KK Paul, a senior Delhi police officer, wrote to his superiors in 2001: ‘There has obviously been a conspiracy between the accused and certain officials which needs to be probed.’
President Abdul Kalam has promised ‘necessary action’; the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, called for laws to prevent witnesses retracting their statements in court; and Home Minister Shivraj Patil promised the government would ‘find out who is really responsible’ for Lall’s death. The Delhi police announced an internal inquiry, admitting evidence had been ‘tampered with’ and that some officers had been involved in a ‘criminal conspiracy’ to obstruct the course of justice. Police said on Friday that they would check the bank accounts of witnesses who had changed their evidence. The prosecution is to appeal on behalf of the Lall family.
But Sabrina Lall is not optimistic that justice will swiftly prevail: ‘It isn’t just the legal system, it’s the entire system in India. Everyone bows under pressure of money. People will bend over backwards to accommodate influential people.’