The hero of Scarlett Keeling's tragedy
When a British mother got justice last week after her teenage daughter's killer was convicted in Goa, there was one man she wanted to thank
He doesn't quite come across like a hero, although Fiona MacKeown called him that last week in an interview to this paper. He sticks to the simple bush shirt-trouser combination with a pen in his pocket; a black lanyard for the spectacles, his only accessory.
For MacKeown, 55, Vikram Varma has been advisor, advocate and healer. In the 11 years since her daughter Scarlett Keeling's bruised and partially clothed body was found on Anjuna beach in Goa, Varma has been instrumental in working behind the scenes to ensure justice was done. The 15-year-old from Bideford in Devon was on a six-month holiday to India with her family when she died. The two accused, Samson D'Souza and Placido Carvalho, who worked at a beach shack where she was found, were earlier acquitted by the Goa Children's Court in 2016 after a lengthy trial. But after severe public criticism and media attention, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) stepped in.
Accused Samson D'Souza
Last week, D'Souza was found guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, and specifically for assault, destruction of evidence and providing narcotics to Keeling. July 17, the day of the verdict, was International Day of Justice. The coincidence isn't lost on Varma. "Training in law empowers you to help those who cannot help themselves. This empowerment must be exercised to assist the courts in the delivery of justice," he says from his office in Bardez, north of Panaji.
Varma and his team, including his advocate daughter Aishvarya, have played a crucial role in MacKeown's victory. He, of course, doesn't forget to mention special public prosecutor Ejaz Khan's "hours of labour". This is the lot that has displayed, more than any other trait, patience. It was not until two years after Keeling's death that the trial even began. Close to 72 witnesses had to testify, and MacKeown in fact, waited four years before she could bury her daughter in the garden of their family home.
A file photo of Fiona MacKeown speaking to Vikram Varma in September, 2016 at his office
Faith is primal to a lawyer's success. Varma says when MacKeown lost all hope in the Indian judiciary after the acquittal of both accused by the lower court, he told her of how some of the brightest legal minds are part of the Panaji Bench of the Bombay High Court. "An appeal may just reveal the truth and get us justice," he remembers telling her.
That he has worked with the best in the business allows him this luxury of hope. Before Varma moved to Goa in 2015, he was a member of the Supreme Court Bar and the Delhi High Court Bar. But much of the work involved legal research and drafting. He admits that he preferred the comfort of his office to the rigors of litigation in court. It was this that also had him decide to move out of Delhi, the city of his education. "My children were young and I wanted to spend time with them, watch them grow up. I treasure the simple things, like walking barefoot in the sand. I was committed to being a good parent."
The simple life was in sync with his upbringing. Varma calls his early life one that was spent with modest resources. His father was deeply spiritual and they were taught that happiness was a state of mind. "Two pairs of shoes and four pairs of clothes seemed adequate. And although, the family had a car, for us, the children, travelling by bus was the rule."
In fact, when MacKeown, a single mother bringing up seven children independently, confessed to him that she didn't have the means to pay his fees, and would perhaps look at selling part of her farm land back in England, he agreed to assist her pro bono. He calls her a woman of extraordinary strength. "She is transparent, remained at the forefront of this struggle. I hope other women suffering injustice find inspiration from her to stand up for their rights," he says.
It was on February 21, 2008, three days after Keeling's body was found, that Varma first met her. At the time, he narrates, Anjuna Police Inspector Nerlon Albequrque was trying hard to convince MacKeown that this was a case of accidental drowning, hardly uncommon in Goa. But locals she had spoken to after arriving here hinted that her daughter was raped and murdered. "The people involved were drug dealers, well connected with the local police. There was really nothing she could do about it. I suggested then that we first examine the body. If we found suspicious injuries, we could approach senior officers."
Still an outsider in Goa, Varma thought the police was bound to register an FIR if they suspected foul play. He made an application to examine the body and found close to 50 injury marks. Photographic evidence and letters were shot off to top police officers. But it took two autopsies and considerable media attention for the local police to finally register the case. "I realised the accused were either part of a crime syndicate or had considerable influence on the local police, and that the case would require far more of my attention than I had anticipated."
While Varma was aware that the evidence at hand was not conclusive enough for a conviction, it was more than adequate to acknowledge that a crime had been committed. It was after 18 days that the FIR was filed. "We were fortunate to have some of India's best legal minds on the bench. Nothing escaped their judicial scrutiny. The truth was ultimately revealed." On July 19, Justice R Dhanuka and Justice Prithviraj Chavan sentenced D'Souza to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs 2.60 lakh.
His sanguine disposition does not reveal the anguish and struggle of the last 11 years. But with MacKeown, who had to face personal attack, and stand up to a complaint against her that saw the police take her to Panaji police station at 10 pm for possible arrest, Varma too wasn't spared. "She was threatened and I had to bring her entire family to live with me in safety. Finally, when all else failed, they hacked my email and information pertaining to the case flashed online. It was all to pressurise Fiona and myself to withdraw our complaint," he says.
His steadfast fight, and previous work with foreigners in Goa who were involved in property swindling, makes him a favourite with every non-Indian looking for legal assistance in the beach state. In 2007, when a group of bonafide Russian investors in Goa became victims of the local land mafia, Varma had assisted them in acquiring their properties. This victory resulted in the Russian Consulate seeking his advice and subsequently appointing him as their advocate for all matters related to Russian nationals in Goa.'
Foreigners, Varma says, are easy prey, because they are here on a limited visa. "In a large number of cases involving them, the police are reluctant to register complaints, keeping in mind that they may not be able to return to testify during trial which could take years. This legal condition that demands their presence during trial is far from practical."
Daniele Mclaughlin, 28, was found dead in Canacona, in March 2017
The July 19 verdict may have brought Varma closure, but there's more to do. Irish national Daniele Mclaughlin, 28, was killed while on holiday in Canacona in March 2017. Her naked body was found by a man in a field, her face bloodied and smashed. A post-mortem examination confirmed sexual assault, and brain damage and strangulation as the cause of death. Vikas Bhagat, a 24 local was arrested in the case. "Like Scarlett, Daniele also trusted a local person who posed as a true friend. He stands accused now of her rape and murder. I am assisting the prosecution and hope the family gets justice."
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