Editorial: Let the punishment fit the crime

In yet another dastardly instance of adding insult to injury, a woman Indian Air Force (IAF) officer who was sexually assaulted by a flight lieutenant at the Air Force Administrative College in Coimbatore was subjected to a course of physical examination at the Air Force Hospital.
Flight lieutenant S Amitesh Harmukh being produced in the Mahila Court in Coimbatore.
Flight lieutenant S Amitesh Harmukh being produced in the Mahila Court in Coimbatore.

Chennai

The two-finger test which had been a norm for ascertaining complaints of sexual assault had been prohibited by the Supreme Court a few years ago, on account of its invasive nature and how it stripped off the dignity of the survivor. However, it seems the authorities at the Air Force Hospital decided to do away with such a technicality and examine the survivor in a manner uncalled for.
And it’s not just the physical examination that was a point of contention. The authorities at the institution, including the College Commandant, had failed to take any action upon the complaint received until after 10 days of the incident. On top of it, the survivor’s senior officers advised her against pursuing her complaint, as it would bring disrepute to the institution and forever blemish her career.
As this was an incident involving two officers of the IAF, the Air Force had decided to intervene. Last week, the Coimbatore City Police handed over the perpetrator to IAF authorities. As per Sec 72 of the Indian Air Force Act 1950, the civil police is not authorised to arrest a serving member of the Armed Forces. Experts in the legal ecosystem, however, say that there are pitfalls in handing over this case to the military court. One of the disadvantages is the fact that those who sit in on a judgment in court-martial do not have any legal grounding.
The convening authority, usually a senior military officer, draws from a pool of officers to pick the prosecutor and the defence counsel. Occasionally, a judge advocate may be asked to oversee the case in an advisory role. Some vouch for the delivery of an expedient judgment in a court-martial, thanks to the airtight functioning of the judicial system. However, critics of the system believe that such cases could get lost within the militaristic complex, and deny the survivor the right to fair justice.
If one recalls, a similar incident took place within the realms of the Chennai police a few months ago. A senior woman officer had filed a complaint against a high ranking police officer of sexual misconduct. In this case, the woman officer was warned by senior police personnel that her entire career would be at stake in the aftermath of raising such concerns. The woman officer nevertheless went ahead with her case, which was taken up in a civil court.
For all practical purposes, this is a case involving the sexual assault of an officer serving in the Armed Forces in which neither any leniency nor any delay should be tolerated. As per Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code, punishment for rape includes rigorous imprisonment which is not less than seven years and could extend to life imprisonment, and fine. It is hoped that the Air Force authorities convening the court-martial remember that the punishment for outraging the modesty of a woman should not be merely stripping away the perpetrator’s badges or de-promoting them on account of conduct unbecoming of an officer. If proven guilty, the accused must be charged to the maximum possible extent, which will set a precedent and a deterrent at the same time in the Armed Forces. For once, let the punishment fit the crime.

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