After eight years of investigation, a court in Goa this week has let off both the accused, Samson D’Souza and Placido Carvalho, in the crime of raping and murdering British teenager Scarlett Keeling. She was found dead in Goa’s Anjuna beach in 2008. As investigations proceeded, Placido and Samson were charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder, sexual abuse and drugging. Following the court verdict however, they will now walk free. That we still are in the dark about who murdered the teenage girl more than a dozen years since the crime, is a telling indictment of the justice-delivery system.
The absence of clarity on part of the investigating agencies — the opacity that so often defines such acts of violence — continues to be a blot on our administrative, political and law-enforcement culture. It’s not surprising that Scarlett’s mother, Fiona MacKeown, doggedly fighting all these years to get justice for her daughter, has been shocked by the verdict. Expressing her lack of faith in the Indian judicial system, Fiona has said she will challenge the acquittal in a higher court. Her allegations of government negligence and complicity in exonerating the accused should not surprise us in a situation where a whole range of systems have regularly failed to deliver justice to survivors of sexual violence.
Media reports have quoted Fiona as saying that the hardest thing to deal with was the government’s shoddy handling of the case. She has accused the previous dispensation in Goa of colluding with the police in hushing up the case. "In fact, Fiona’s lawyer, Vikram Varma, too had alleged that the shack where Keeling was drugged before being raped had been pulled down. Varma had also said that Keeling’s body organs were not preserved properly raising prospects that crucial evidence may have been damaged," a report in The Indian Express said this Friday.
The question that continues to haunt the event after eight long years of investigation is: Who killed Scarlett Keeling? How can investigating agencies still remain clueless about the murderer/murderers? These questions become even more acute in cases where victims do not have the wherewithal to lobby with the powerful for a fair and timely hearing in the courts. The routine stigmatisation of victims and their families — especially if they are seen to have an unconventional, 'bohemian' lifestyle — doesn’t help matters.
Let’s remind ourselves of the media and official portrayal of Fiona Mackeown . In an interview to The Independent in 2013, Fiona said: "I blame myself to a certain extent because I trusted the people that I left her with." But then she went on to stress: "I was never negligent with Scarlett, I was naive in terms of the country we were visiting but I never didn’t care about her."
At the time that Scarlett was assaulted and murdered, her mother was pilloried in the national and international media for her apparent negligence, for leaving her teenage daughter in the care of an older male. A moralising 'she deserved it' tone ran through the reportage of the crime, virtually suggesting that Scarlett brought the attack on herself by attending the party on the drug-fuelled Anjuna beach.
By now we are well aware of the insidious tendency to project victims of sexual violence as directly or indirectly 'abetting' the crime which has been committed against them. The victim’s lifestyle, her past relationships and habits, are routinely raked up in courtrooms even when they have no bearing on the actual crime.
It may be interesting here to refer to Pink, a recently-released film based on the theme of women put on trial. "Even as I sit down to write the story of Pink and 'women on trial', the news of Scarlett Keeling — the British teen whose bruised and half-naked body was found in the waters of Anjuna Beach, Goa — filters in. The two men, charged with culpable homicide and grievous sexual assault of the teen in 2008, have been cleared of all charges," Urmi Bhattacheryya writes in her review of the film for The Quint.
Pink is an indicting comment on the systemic patriarchy of the legal system that manifests itself in how survivors of sexual assault are dealt with in courtrooms. The absence of a verdict in the Scarlett Keeling case, and her mother’s vulnerability in grappling with a system that seems to have already pronounced a verdict on the victim of the crime, are reminders of the myriad ways in which survivors of sexual violence are continuously denied proper justice.
It’s fitting to end, then, with the words of Rebecca John, a senior advocate in the Supreme Court — as quoted by Bhattaceryya: "This isn’t a commentary on whether the men are innocent or not. But Scarlett’s mother could’ve been told this 8 years ago. Instead, she waits 8 long years to find out that no one raped her daughter… no one killed her."
If it is true (as the old adage goes) that ‘justice late is justice denied,’ then the outcome of this case eight years in the making is obvious enough and there for all to see.