After nine years in Tihar Jail, former senior police officer RK Sharma is set to walk free. The Delhi High Court has acquitted him and two others in the 1999 murder of journalist Shivani Bhatnagar and ordered their release.
Ruling on an appeal made by the accused against a trial court order of 2008 sentencing them to life imprisonment, the High Court said, "The quality of evidence before us is not of a high calibre... Judges, like other human beings, also have suspicions. But, judges, unlike others who are free to arrive at their own conclusions, cannot and do not convict on the basis of mere suspicion... The prosecution has to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. We are afraid the prosecution, in our view, has failed to do so in the case of these three. The accused get the benefit of doubt."
The court has only upheld the conviction of one of the four men handed life sentences by the trial court - a hitman, Pradeep Sharma. The judges said that though the motive behind Pradeep Sharma killing Ms Bhatnagar was unclear, they did find that he was the person who killed her.
The prosecution has said it will appeal against today's High Court verdict in the Supreme Court.
RK Sharma, a former IPS officer and who at one time worked in the Prime Minister's Office, has been in Tihar Jail ever since he surrendered to Delhi Police in September 2002. The police accused him of plotting the murder of Ms Bhatnagar, a senior journalist with the newspaper The Indian Express, who was killed in her East Delhi apartment on January 23, 1999. Her two-month-old son was with her when she was killed - her body bore stab wounds and strangulation marks. She had reportedly met Mr Sharma while covering the Prime Minister's Office.
In March 2008, a Delhi court held Mr Sharma guilty of hiring hitmen to murder Ms Bhatnagar because he was worried she would go public with details of their relationship. The same judge said that the former police officer did not deserve the death penalty because of his "excellent" service record. The judge commented, "Except for the crime in question, he (Sharma) is an asset to this nation." The court had sentenced Mr Sharma, Pradeep Sharma, Bhagwan Sharma and Satya Prakash to life imprisonment. In the High Court, Mr Sharma's lawyer had argued that the evidence against him was largely circumstantial, and has been tampered with by the Delhi Police to implicate the former police officer. The police, on the other hand, contended that Mr Sharma used his senior position to influence witnesses and to try and extricate himself from the case.