Acid attack survivors participate in a candlelit vigil protesting violence against women in New Delhi in 2014. Photo: AP

Indian man sentenced to death for acid attack murder of woman who rejected his marriage proposal

An Indian court sentenced a man to death on Thursday for murdering a woman by throwing acid on her face after she rejected his marriage proposal, in a landmark judgement.

Ankur Panwar was found guilty on Tuesday of hurling sulphuric acid on 24-year-old Preeti Rathi in a fit of jealousy outside a railway station in the financial capital Mumbai in May 2013.

The court has awarded the death penalty ... I convinced the court that the acid attack belonged to the rarest of rare cases
Public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam

Rathi, who was a neighbour of Panwar’s in New Delhi and had just arrived in Mumbai to start a new job as a nurse, died in hospital of multiple organ failure the following month.

“The court has awarded the death penalty to Ankur Panwar. I convinced the court that the acid attack belonged to the rarest of rare cases,” public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam told AFP.

The Supreme Court says capital punishment should only be carried out in “the rarest of rare” cases in India, among a dwindling group of nations that still have the death penalty on their statute books.

“This is a landmark judgement for such crimes. This is the first time that such a judgement has been passed for an acid attack-related case against a woman,” said Nikam.

Activists welcomed the sentence which they said would go a long way to preventing future attacks, but criticised the length of time taken to bring the offender to justice.

“It is a welcome judgement but it has come too late. It took a fast-track court three years to punish the guilty,” said Sonali Mukherjee, whose own face was severely disfigured in 2003 by a group of men who have been convicted but are on bail pending an appeal.

About 300 acid attacks were reported in India in 2015, according to the latest official crime figures. Experts say these figures and similar ones in other South Asian countries are likely to represent only the tip of the iceberg.

Deaths are rare but scores of survivors face lifelong scars and battle social stigma.

India’s Supreme Court ordered states in 2013 to enforce restrictions on the sale of acid in a bid to curb attacks, but Mukherjee and other campaigners say it remains easy to purchase.

The victim’s family applauded Thursday’s decision, saying it should now be swiftly carried out.

“We had sought the death penalty since the beginning so the verdict is good. Now, we want it to be carried out without any delay,” Hitesh Rathi, Preeti’s brother, told AFP.

Police alleged Panwar, reportedly 26, and a hotel management graduate, had committed the crime out of jealousy after she rejected his marriage proposal and had wanted to disfigure her face to destroy her career.

Panwar’s lawyer said she would appeal the verdict – delivered at a special court dealing with crimes against women – to the Bombay High Court, Mumbai’s highest.

“We are moving the case to the High Court. There is no second thought about it,” Apeksha Vora told AFP. Nikam successfully argued that Panwar’s attack had been premeditated. Vora had pleaded leniency for her client, saying that he was his family’s sole breadwinner.