An Indian court has acquitted two death row convicts due to “lack of evidence” in a notorious case of serial killings and cannibalism of more than a dozen children that shook the country more than a decade ago.
Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh state overturned the convictions of Surendra Koli and his former employer Moninder Singh Pandher on Monday and acquitted them of charges of rape and murder of at least 16 children from impoverished families.
Mr Koli was given a death sentence in 12 cases, while Mr Pandher was convicted in two cases of rape, murder, pornography and cannibalism by a trial court in 2009.
The court said the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond “reasonable doubt”.
“Mr Koli had appealed for 14 cases and he has been acquitted in all the cases, and Mr Pandher has been acquitted in two cases,” said Manisha Bhandari, a lawyer for Mr Pandher.
The horrifying case came to light in 2006 when bones and skulls were found in a drain near Mr Pandher’s house in Noida, a satellite city outside New Delhi, sending shock waves throughout the country. Mr Koli was employed by Mr Pandher as a domestic worker.
Most of the remains were believed to be of eight children and a young woman, a domestic worker, who had gone missing from the area over the previous two years, amid allegations that the police had ignored missing persons reports filed by the victims' families.
An initial investigation by local police led to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation taking over the case. During its inquiry, more human bones were found in the drain near the house.
The CBI registered a total of 16 cases of murder, abduction, rape and destruction of evidence against Mr Koli.
A court in 2009 found Mr Koli guilty of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. The court called it the “rarest of rare” cases and sentenced both of the accused to death. Mr Koli was awarded five death sentences in five separate cases.
Mr Koli petitioned for mercy to then president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, but his petition was rejected. His execution was stalled for a week and a review petition was filed.
The Allahabad High Court in 2015 commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment, but he was convicted in another case of murder.
The court on Monday acquitted him in 12 cases.
Mr Koli will remain in prison on a life sentence, having been convicted in another case.
Mr Pandher was charged in six cases, including two death sentences, but was acquitted in three cases on Monday.
He has also been cleared of all three pending cases and will be released on Tuesday, Ms Bhandari said.