'proper trial' Fast-track court in India could hear Danielle McLaughlin murder trial this year
The body of Danielle, from Buncrana, Co Donegal, was found in Goa, India, in 2017
The trial of the man accused of the rape and murder of Donegal backpacker Danielle McLaughlin in India is being put forward as the first case to be heard in a new court in India.
The fast-track special court (FTSC) in Goa is being set up for expeditious trials and disposal of cases of sexual violence against women and children. It may be operational within months.
Danielle’s mother, Andrea Brannigan, has been told by Indian authorities that the case is being mooted as the first to get under way.
The body of Danielle (28), from Buncrana, was found in a field between the Agonda and Canacona beaches in south Goa in March 2017. Her friend, Vikat Bhagat, was later charged with her murder, which he denies. His trial, which began more than four years ago, has been beset by delays.
Bhagat’s trial currently sits for about half-an-hour once a month, meaning it would not be over for another seven years if it continued at that pace. This is not unusual for murder trials in India’s sluggish justice system, which is often fraught with setbacks and lengthy stoppages.
“I’ve been told now it will be the first case in this new court, which will have a woman judge and a proper trial will finally be held,” Ms Brannigan told the Sunday Independent.
“All we can do is hope that this will happen. There needs to be a proper trial. My daughter was murdered five years ago next month. And that man was arrested within hours. We can’t come to terms with our loss properly until there is a proper trial.”
Ms Brannigan, who met then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to speak about her daughter’s case in 2018, has been calling on the Government to intervene for some time.
She hopes that, finally, diplomatic moves between the Irish and UK authorities to ensure Bhagat’s trial will soon begin properly will come to fruition. Danielle was a dual British-Irish citizen.
“I have been let down before, but I really hope this time what has been promised now finally happens,” Ms Brannigan said.
“Danielle’s case would be perfect for this new court, and I’ve been informed it will be heard there and a proper trial will begin by the end of this year or early next year. I was promised at the beginning that he would have a proper trial that would be fast-tracked like the Delhi girl trial.”
The so-called Delhi girl case centred on the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in 2012. The trial of five men over the crime was heard at a specially convened fast-track court in the Indian capital. The suspects were convicted the following year and four were executed.
Late last year, Department of Foreign Affairs officials, along with their counterparts in the UK, were due to send a delegation to India to lobby for the trial of Bhagat to get properly under way.
However, the Indian authorities later cancelled the meeting and have yet to provide a new date for diplomatic discussions.
Last week, Ms Brannigan marked what would have been her eldest daughter’s 33rd birthday, and said she wanted to send a message of hope in recognition of how kind a person Danielle was and how she lived her life.
“During these uncertain times we are facing, I would just like everyone to remember to be kind, and on Danielle’s birthday I would love if people could remember Danielle by choosing kindness over everything else,” she said.
There have been numerous delays with Bhagat’s trial over the past several years. He launched a legal challenge to wearing handcuffs at one stage. Before that, he was engaged in a lengthy legal battle, which ultimately failed, to be released on bail because of delays caused by Covid-19.
The case was briefly heard again last Tuesday, but was adjourned almost immediately and no witnesses appeared, nor was any evidence heard.
Ms Brannigan said she would like to travel to India to witness the proceedings, but there is “no point” until the trial gets under way properly.
Danielle’s case was raised in the Dáil in October by family friend and local Sinn Féin TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, who asked Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney about what help was being provided to her family.
Mr Coveney said he remained “fully committed to the case” and that consular work he could not discuss was continuing.
Ms Brannigan has kept the last text she received from her daughter, on March 13, 2017. “I’m safe. I’m with my friend Vikat and others,” it read.
Bhagat has been described by police in India as a gang member and has convictions for theft. Danielle knew nothing of his criminal past. She had met him the year before when visiting India and had struck up a friendship.
“She called him her ‘brother’,” her mother said.
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