The Allahabad High Court overturned the death sentence of Surinder Koli. In 2006, Koli had been convicted in a gruesome case of killing several children in Noida—including raping, murdering and cannibalising a girl. Turns out there was embarrassingly little evidence of his guilt.
Remind me of this case…
It was a shocking case out of Noida that drew a media feeding frenzy—much like the Aarushi Talwar case in 2008. Here’s what happened:
How it started: Between 2005 and 2006, several low-income children went missing in Noida. The police made little headway until two fathers pointed their finger at Surinder Koli—who worked as a domestic help for a local businessman Moninder Singh Pandher. When the police did not respond, the two men—along with a member of the resident’s association—searched a drain near Pandher’s home:
The drain had not been cleaned for months. About half an hour later, [one of the fathers] Jhabbu said, he found a decomposed hand. Police were called in from Sector 20 police station, where all the missing complaints had been registered. By the time police reached the spot, locals said they had dug out parts of three bodies.
The police arrived at the scene and took over the search. They arrested Pandher and Koli. The allegations:
Pandher and his domestic help Koli were accused of abducting and raping children and women from nearby villages of Nithari, committing acts of cannibalism, and then disposing of their bodies in a drain in the locality.
The police filed 19 FIRs—one for each alleged murder.
Contradictory, messy investigation: From the outset, the press coverage of the case was filled with inconsistencies. The residents claimed that there were more bodies than the police would admit. And they also accused the police of taking credit for the discovery. In the end, the CBI was called in—which filed only 16 FIRs, saying there wasn’t enough evidence for the other three killings.
The death sentences: In 2009—although the CBI argued Pandher was not guilty of the murders—a special CBI court convicted both men and sentenced them to death for the rape and murder of one of the victims. The two men received death sentences in a number of other similar cases over the coming years. The sentence in one of the cases against Koli was finally changed to life imprisonment in 2015—citing the "inordinate" delay in deciding his mercy plea. But both men remained in prison and headed for the noose until yesterday.
Point to note: This is how NewsLaundry describes the feeding frenzy at the time:
As the chilling details kept tumbling out with the arrest and narco-analysis of house owner Moninder Singh Pandher and his domestic help Surinder Koli, cannibalism and necrophiliac bestiality seemed the next possibility. Debauchery was the new porn for news consumers – repulsive but served with grisly details by news media as it fed collective voyeurism.
Ok, so what was the evidence?
The confession: There were wild accusations and very few verifiable facts—most of it centred around the “psychological assessments, polygraph tests, narco-analysis and brain electrical oscillation signature (BEOS) profiles” of the two accused men. In other words, almost everything rested on what they said under persistent, invasive interrogation. In the end, Koli broke down and ‘confessed’ under the effects of a ‘truth serum’. And the investigating authorities freely shared graphic details with the press:
In Koli’s narco analysis, he recalls making sexual attempts on 13 victims, 15 strangulations, 11 heads severed and thrown into the gallery, 14 bodies dismembered from shoulders, torsos cut into small pieces and packed in double polythene bags and disbursed in the nala…
Evidence? What evidence? As some commentators pointed out at the time, the entire case hinged on Koli’s confession—whose details seemed a bit dubious:
In the way of legally substantial evidence, the police have nothing more than what Koli has admitted. A good lawyer would have told him to keep his mouth shut. His confession is disturbing, not only for its content, but also the fact that every crime is identical, the disposals of the victim’s remains, too, are identical. If he were telling the truth, then things had always worked out very conveniently for him several times as he went through the stages of the crimes. If he were lying in his confession, then he had no imagination.
FYI: A committee constituted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development was equally sceptical of the police’s case.
The retraction: Koli tried to take back his confession in court—but to little avail. And no one seemed perturbed that someone had been sentenced to death on the basis of a now contested confession—Caravan notes:
For one, all through the proceedings in the various courts, Koli had maintained that the confession was extracted under torture—a claim that, if proven true, would suffice to render his conviction, and therefore the capital sentence, to a nullity. But the magistrate who gave his seal of approval, and both the sessions court and high court refused to test the veracity of his claims. The Allahabad High Court, in its judgement, noted the contention of Dr Sushil Balwada, the court-appointed lawyer assigned to Koli’s defence, that the allegedly voluntary confessional statement was inadmissible as evidence, but left it at that. Even the Supreme Court, without assigning any reason, expressed its satisfaction at the confession having legal sanctity.
Defenders of Pandher: The Nithari case made headlines again in 2017 thanks to a Netflix documentary—‘The Karma Killings’—directed by an Indian American filmmaker. Ram Devineni’s film reflected his own pet theories—which let Pandher off the hook as a victim of "an inverse racism"—while Koli was described as the true villain:
Devineni describes Koli as "really shrewd and cunning, one of the smartest people I've ever met. He's had little education, knows no English, but he does his own research. On his own, he has learnt India's complex legal system and how to stay on top of it." His impression of Mr Pandher, on the other hand, was that of a "quiet and kind grandfather-type" of man. "He denied his involvement in the crimes and asked me to look at the evidence instead."
In fact, Devineni claimed the parents of the slum children wanted to bring Pandher down because he was rich:
None of them really care about Koli. Their whole focus is on Pandher. Koli is poor, like them. He's one of them. Pandher is rich and if he's let off, it's the big guy getting away with murder.
In other words, everyone had their pet theory—which matched their biases. The evidence be damned.
Ok, now tell me about the court ruling…
One: The prosecution “failed to prove the guilt of accused SK and Pandher beyond reasonable doubt”—because its case is based entirely on circumstantial evidence.
Two: Much of that evidence was not directly linked to Pandher’s home: “None of the recovery of skull, bones/skeleton is made from within the House No. D-5.”
Three: The case rests on Koli’s confession—but proper procedure was not followed in recording that confession: “The casual and perfunctory manner in which important aspects of arrest, recovery and confession have been dealt with are most disheartening, to say the least.”
Four: In fact, the court noted that the prosecution kept changing its mind on Pandher’s involvement—and “the guilt was fastened exclusively” on Koli at later stages. The judges even accused the police of opting for “the easy course of implicating a poor servant” of the house by “demonizing him.”
Five: As a result, the police failed to follow up key lines of investigation—including the possible involvement of organ trafficking—which was suggested by the committee constituted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development.
The bottomline: The most depressing bit about this case is how little anyone cares about the Nithari killings today. The judgement didn’t make headlines—and passed with little comment. Neither the media nor their audience have much interest in matters of innocence—and even less in the real killers of these vulnerable children. Not when it doesn’t involve lurid tales of gore.
NDTV and Indian Express have a good overview of the case—and its development. Indian Express also has the most lurid details of Koli’s confession. Manu Joseph in Hindustan Times and this reported piece in Caravan offer a sceptical take on that confession. BBC News shamefully gave full rein to the wild theories of filmmaker Ram Devineni—without comment or additional reporting—although Scroll calls out the class bias. The Telegraph has a single PTI copy summing up the latest ruling. Sad.