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Woman wins murder case retrial: Appeal court judges quash conviction of battered wife who set fire to her husband after 10 years of violence

A BATTERED wife who set fire to her husband after enduring 10 years of violence and humiliation had her murder conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal yesterday.

But campaigners' hopes of early freedom for Kiranjit Ahluwalia, 36, were dashed, when three judges headed by Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, ordered that she should face a retrial. The chanting of 'free her now' by demonstrators outside the court fell on deaf ears, when the judges ruled that in the meantime she must stay in prison.

As widely anticipated, the Court of Appeal refused to reduce her conviction to manslaughter on the grounds of provocation by her husband, Deepak.

In another attack on the automatic life sentence for murder, Lord Taylor said the court could not bend the law on provocation simply because she was serving what might seem to be an unjust sentence that reflected no sympathy for what she had been through.

The court heard she had been so emotionally destroyed by 10 years of domestic violence, she had reached the 'nadir of self- abasement.'

Lord Taylor said: 'The existence of a mandatory life sentence for all murders is a matter for Parliament, not for this court, and we cannot bend the law in an individual case or class of cases where it may be thought that the mandatory sentence operates harshly.'

The legal principle that 'provocation' was something that caused an ordinary and reasonable person to suffer a 'temporary and sudden' loss of self-control was laid down by Lord Devlin in 1949 and had been followed by the courts ever since - including last year in the case of Sara Thornton, who failed to have her murder conviction reduced to manslaughter.

In both the Thornton case and that of Mrs Ahluwalia, there was a period of delay between the husband's provocative acts and the killing.

Women's groups and lawyers have argued that the delay can be a 'boiling over' rather than than a cooling off period.

But Lord Taylor said there was a danger of blurring the law so that it could could distinguish between provocation and taking time for plotting deliberate retribution. In Mrs Ahluwalia's case she had fetched petrol, a candle and stick, and a protective glove for herself.

The judge said: 'We are bound by the previous decisions of this court, unless we were convinced they were wholly wrong. When a particular principle of law has been confirmed so many times and applied so generally over such a long period it must be for Pariament to consider any change.'

It was fresh medical evidence that Mrs Ahluwalia might have been suffering from diminished reponsiblity at the time of the 1989 killing that rendered her murder conviction unsafe and unsatisfactory, the court ruled. Justice demanded that the new evidence - that she was suffering from severe depression induced by years of violence should be tested at trial, he said. The judges urged that her retrial, to take place at the Old Bailey, should be heard as soon as possible.

The judgment met a mixed reaction from her family and supporters. Her brother-in-law, Sukhjit Walia, said her two children were disappointed that she had not been freed. 'But the decision is an opening for us. She is no longer on a murder charge and we hope that, on the retrial, her plea of manslaughter will be accepted.'