Murderous sisters to hang in India’s first execution of women

It was 1990 when two sisters, then just teenagers, abducted their first victim. They were daughters of a woman who made a career out of picking pockets in crowded markets and railway stations in the sprawling central Indian state of Maharashtra. And their family had just come apart.

According to a 2006 Telegraph report, their parents had split and their father had married another woman and had a child. Under their mother’s direction, Renuka Shinde and Seema Gavit kidnapped their half-sister. She would be the first of 13 children they would abduct. Several would escape. Most, however, would not. And ultimately, in a case that roiled India in the late 1990s, five to 10 of the kids were murdered in a scheme that involved kidnapping children, exploiting them to pick more pockets — and killing them in horrific fashion.

Thirteen years have now passed since they were sentenced to death. Their recent mercy plea was just rejected by India’s president. Shinde and Gavit are now expected to be hanged in India’s first execution of a woman.

Per a 1980 Supreme Court Decision, only in extreme cases does India put convicts to death — cases such as the 2012 execution of a gunman behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. Though the sentence is sometimes handed down, it is almost always commuted to life in prison. “A real and abiding concern for the dignity of human life postulates resistance to taking a life,” the ruling said. “That ought not to be done save in the ‘rarest of rare’ cases.”

It appears the case of the murderous sisters is rare enough. “While I’m professional and personally against the capital punishment, this is indeed one of the rarest of the rare cases where the perpetrators deserve the death sentence,” human rights lawyer Asim Sarode told the Hindu.

Shinde and Gavit plan to appeal the rejection of their mercy plea before India’s high court today. “They will appeal to have the death penalty commuted because there has been such a delay,” the sisters’ lawyer told the Irish Independent. “There is too much delay. The Supreme Court has said if there is too much delay it can have a bad effect on the mental health of the convicted people.”

But heretofore, courts have not been friendly to the sisters. “Going into the details of the case, we find no mitigating circumstances against them apart from the fact they are women,” one court said in 2004.

Indeed, Shinde and Gavit’s story is one of wanton killing abetted and encouraged by their mother, who died of a brain hemorrhage before she could be tried, and carried out for financial gain.

Following that first abduction in 1990, the family warmed to the idea of kidnapping children. Mother and daughters targeted kids between 1 and 5 years old and forced them into begging. Once they had them, the abuse began. One boy “was hurt when he was hurled to the floor,” an investigating officer told India’s The Week news magazine. “Denied medication, the baby’s wounds festered and he was crying uncontrollably. [The mother] shut him up by bashing his head repeatedly against an iron rod.”

The family committed horrifying acts. One 7-month-old child was dropped because Gavit couldn’t deal with his crying, reported The Week. Another boy was hung upside down and his head bashed. “They chopped the body of one child and stuffed it into a gunny bag for disposal,” Sarode told The Week. “The gang carried the bag with them and watched a movie [at a local theater] and ate bhel puri while the bag lay between their feet.”

In 1996, after years of kidnappings and killings, the sisters decided to circle back to their father’s new family and kidnap his other daughter, this one age 9. They killed her and dumped her in a field — but her disappearance raised questions, and an ensuing police investigation yielded evidence of numerous murders.

Shinde and Gavit were eventually convicted of five murders based substantially upon testimony delivered by one sister’s husband, who witnessed them. He was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony, the BBC reported.

Defense lawyers have maintained that the sisters acted only under their mother’s orders, but court after court has affirmed their sentence. “We do not think these appellants are likely to reform,” the Bombay High Court said in 2004. They “will remain a menace to society.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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