'Marry him or take money': TN govt lawyer accused of threatening child sexual abuse victims

Shocking allegations have emerged against a Special Public Prosecutor in Tamil Nadu, who has been accused of threatening child sexual abuse victims and their families to drop cases against the accused. Two families from Tiruvallur district have said that Dhanalakshmi ML of the District Mahila Court – who was assigned to represent them – has sided with the accused instead, and on one occasion, even put the minor victim in the same room as her alleged rapist and threatened her.

The families have now approached the Tiruvallur Superintendent of Police with complaints against Dhanalakshmi.

The family of a child with speech impairment and learning disabilities, who was sexually assaulted in 2015, approached the police on Monday. On Tuesday, a victim who was raped as a minor and is now 20 years old also approached the police with complaints against the same Public Prosecutor.

'Marry him or take money'

Twenty-year-old Maria (name changed) vividly recalls her first visit to the Tiruvallur Mahila Court. A resident of Madhavaram, she was raped by a neighbour in 2015, and two years later, had been called in for the chief examination before a magistrate. And while she bravely gave a statement against her alleged rapist, little did she know that she would be victimised again by a government appointed authority meant to protect her.

After the court session ended, the Special Public Prosecutor Dhanalakshmi, who was handling the case, allegedly summoned Maria to her room. "I was only 17 years old at that time and I wanted to take someone with me. But she didn't allow that," says Maria about Dhanalakshmi, "When I entered the room I saw that she had brought the accused Gopinath there as well. I was forced to sit across my rapist and have a conversation."

"I could barely speak when I saw my rapist. I started crying and I was frozen in fear," she recalls, "The Public Prosecutor then told me that I either have to marry Gopinath, or take his money and drop the case. She threatened that if I didn’t agree, I will not win this case and that she won't let another lawyer fight it either."

After her refusal to comply, the prosecutor made it look like she had been in love with her rapist during the arguments, says Maria. "Her questions in court would be leading. She would ask – 'You were in love with him, right?' or 'You were hanging out with him, no?'," she explains. "I suspect she was taking money from the accused," adds Maria.

And while this young woman's case is currently at the arguments stage, a couple from Ponneri allege that the rapist of child with speech impairment and learning disabilities has been acquitted due to the Public Prosecutor's interference.

Listen to Maria's allegations - 

'My daughter's rapist is free'

Raghu* and Sudha* (names changed), are seated on the stairs leading to the office of Tiruvallur Superintendent of Police, P Aravindhan. In March this year, Sreenivasan, a school headmaster who had allegedly raped their eldest daughter in 2015, walked out of the Tiruvallur Mahila Court as a free man.

"My daughter has learning disabilities, has difficulty speaking, walking, and one of her hands is disabled,” says Raghu. “She came back home one day, very upset from school. With great difficulty she managed to convey to my wife that the headmaster took her from class, seated her on his lap and touched her inappropriately. Can you imagine a child dealing with this harassment?" he asks, angrily.

Despite getting no support from relatives or other residents in the village, the family decided to file a police complaint and take the headmaster to court. But instead of fighting for justice, Raghu allegedly found himself struggling against his own prosecutor.

"She treated me like I was a beggar," says Raghu, a daily wage worker. "She would tell me to get out of her office whenever we tried to talk to her. Once she was talking to other witnesses in the case but when I tried to go in, she didn't allow me to. The two witnesses she was talking to turned hostile in court," he says.

Advocate Dhanalakshmi allegedly attempted to coerce the couple into taking money from the accused. To escape this, the family moved the Madras High Court to transfer the case. However, the court merely directed the Public Prosecutor and police to ensure the case was handled as per the law and ensure that there were no threats to the couple. But just as Raghu feared, Sreenivasan was acquitted and the Court stated that the prosecution had failed to prove their case.

"We were taken aback by the judgment," says a top police officer in Tiruvallur. "The case should have been a definite victory because the parents and the child had given correct statements. The necessary evidence was in place. We are sending this case for appeal. But in the meantime, we have collected complaints from the two families against the prosecutor. We will be making a report and sending it to the Collector and Directorate of Prosecution. In the past, too, the district administration has been informed about the allegations against her. But no action was taken because she is a political appointee," he says.

Listen to Raghu's allegations - 

Political appointee protected?

There are two ways in which public prosecutors are appointed in courts across Tamil Nadu. In Magistrate Courts, the prosecutor is appointed through the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission. In High Courts and District courts meanwhile, the ruling government can appoint prosecutors for a two-year period and later choose to renew the appointment. The latter are often referred to as political appointees, and in the Tiruvallur case, considered to have the support of the ruling government despite alleged unlawful behaviour.

"In June this year, the Public Prosecutor Dhanalaskhmi demanded Rs 2,000 from my client who was an accused in a POCSO case," says criminal lawyer John Paul from Tiruvallur. "Following this, the Tiruvallur Bar Association got together and sent a petition to the Collector Uma Maheshwari and to the Home Secretary. We mentioned that Dhanalakshmi is threatening the accused and victims, and taking money from them. She calls the complainant and accused to her office and tries to extort money from the accused. She then takes a huge portion of the money," he alleges.

When neither the Collector nor Home secretary responded, lawyers from across the district, protested in front of the Mahila court.

"But her political influence has stopped any kind action being taken against her," alleges John.

Prosecutor denies allegations 

When TNM met the advocate Dhanalakshmi at her office in the Mahila court, she vehemently denied the allegations.

"This Raghu has never even come to my office. I have only seen him on the witness box. The witness (the victim) was never produced before me. I only knew the girl was mental when she was in the witness box," Dhanalakshmi said – continuing to use insensitive language for the victim, who was her own client, "The accused's advocate explained that the victim was a mental and that the accused was a school teacher."

The advocate further denied threatening Maria in her office. "The DNA evidence proved rape in that case. So how can I force them to get married? They have to agree by themselves. I don't even remember who this Maria is," she claimed – once again, about her own client.

The public prosecutor further stated that in both cases, a social activist – Sherin Bosko from the NGO Nakshatra – was involved with preparing victims for court.

"Whenever NGOs interfere I do not get involved or meet the victims," she said.

When informed of her claims, Maria laughs wryly.

"I have fought and lost so much, just to get my rapist convicted. Why should I lie against my prosecutor?" she asks. "When she threatened me to get married to my rapist, I felt a sense of deep betrayal. To be told you have no shot at justice is heartbreaking. I don't want this to happen to any other child. The prosecutor must be punished. She has to go," she says.

Tiruvallur police sources point out that the Public Prosecutor's actions would have deep and harmful ramifications. "If people see accused men in POCSO cases being acquitted despite clear evidence, this will discourage them to even complain," says a police officer. "They are already going through so much, the last thing they need is more harassment."