Hours later, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said the state government will appeal against the verdict delivered by the court of an additional district judge.
Khan, a 55-year-old native of Haryana’s Nuh, had left his village to purchase cattle in order to increase milk produce for Ramzan. Surrounded by a mob of cow vigilantes on the Delhi-Alwar highway on April 1, 2017, he tried to save himself by showing his purchase receipts, but was lynched with rods and sticks.
The six accused let off by the court are Vipin Yadav, Ravindra Kumar, Kaluram, Dayanand, Yogesh Kumar and Bheem Rathi. Three minors were also accused and they are facing a separate inquiry by a juvenile justice board.
While acquitting the six, the court gave them the benefit of the doubt, Additional Public Prosecutor Yogendra Khatana said.
A lawyer representing the accused said the witnesses produced by the prosecution failed to identify them. He also claimed that the video that purportedly showed the lynching was not sent to a forensic lab by the prosecution.
Additional Public Prosecutor Yogendra Khatana said that the prosecution will appeal against the verdict in the higher court after studying the court order.
"The court gave benefit of the doubt to all six accused and acquitted them of lynching charges. We have not received the court order copy and will wait for it to study it and appeal in the higher court," said Khatana.
Rajasthan Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Rajeeva Swarup said the state government has decided to appeal against the judgement. "We are hopeful of getting justice," said prosecution lawyer Qasim Khan.
"We are committed to ensuring justice for the family of late Pehlu Khan," CM Gehlot said in a tweet.
Our State Government has enacted law against mob lynching in first week of August 2019.
We are committed to ensuring justice for family of late Sh Pehlu Khan.
State Government will file appeal against order of ADJ.
— Ashok Gehlot (@ashokgehlot51) August 14, 2019
Sher Mohamed, head of Meo panchayat, also reiterated they would appeal against the decision in the high court. Pehlu Khan belonged to the Meo Muslim community.
Expressing unhappiness, Pehlu Khan's son, Irshad, said, "I am not happy with court decision and will appeal in the higher court."
Akhtar Hussain, the lawyer representing Pehlu Khan's family, said the acquittals will lead to a surge in the number of lynching cases across the county.
Defence lawyer Hukum Chand Sharma called the Alwar court decision historic and a slap on the face of people who he said were doing politics over it.
Elaborating on the line taken by the defence, Sharma said witnesses produced by the prosecution could not identify the accused. He said that Pehlu Khan was a heart patient, and there were differing opinions on the cause of death — a heart attack or a rib fracture.
Asked about the video clip, the lawyer argued that the witness who took filmed it did not appear in the court and it was not sent for forensic lab examination.
Sharma, however, added that the basis on which the accused were acquitted can only be known after the court order is available
The court of Additional District Judge Sarita Swami completed the trial proceedings on August 7 and reserved the case for judgment on Wednesday. More than 40 witnesses, including Khan’s two sons who were with him on the day of the incident, deposed in the case. An FIR was registered against the six men under various sections of the Indian Penal Code: 143 (unlawful assembly), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 341 (wrongful restraint), 308 (culpable homicide), 379 (theft) and 427 (destruction of property). The charge of murder was added following Pehlu Khan's death.
AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi said asked if people were to now believe that no one had killed Pehlu Khan. "What will this deliberately shoddy prosecution tell his family?" asked the Hyderabad MP.
"It's a judgment of a court of law and we must respect it, but the government has a duty to prosecute effectively," he added. "Now the government must file an appeal and seek conviction and sentencing in a time-bound manner."
The then BJP government in Rajasthan under Vasundhara Raje had come under flak over the killing, with the incident escalating the debate over Muslims facing attacks from cow vigilantes.
Former Rajasthan Home Minister Gulabchand Kataria said the government respects the verdict. "We provided all evidence to court, we fought for justice to Pehlu Khan. We did our best," he said.
Kataria said the previous BJP government had taken whatever action it could when the Pehlu Khan case took place. But some people projected the incident in a manner that suggested that the BJP government was in favour of the killing, Kataria, who was the state's home minister then, said. He said the BJP had acted correctly. “But the matter was given a colour and raised in the entire country," he said.
Recently, the Rajasthan Assembly passed a bill introduced by the current Congress government in the state to tackle mob lynching.
In April 2017, along with the FIR against the people who allegedly lynched Pehlu Khan, the police had also registered a case related to cattle smuggling against his two sons and a truck operator.
The Gehlot government faced criticism recently after a chargesheet was filed in that case. The police then approached the court, saying it wanted to reinvestigate the cattle smuggling charge, a plea that the court accepted.
Apart from the six men acquitted on Wednesday and the three minors, the police initially investigated the role of six others in Pehlu Khan's lynching. Those six men were given a clean chit by the police in September 2017.
The chargesheet was filed in the court of ADJ-Behror on February 25, 2018. The case was later shifted to the Alwar court.
(With inputs from agencies)