For Nathu Keru Bhatre, proving his innocence didn’t come easy — it took 24 years and a long, often hopeless, legal battle.
Bhatre, a resident of Katalcha Kond, a small settlement near Ambarle in Raigad district, about 180 km from Mumbai, was accused, along with 13 others, of murdering three government employees in 1985.
The public prosecutor had declared him and most of the other accused innocent, but it was only last month, on April 16, that the Supreme Court acquitted the 60-year-old.
He spent almost four years in jail and had to spend more than Rs 4 lakh in legal expenses.
The incident dates back to February 25, 1985, when three government officials — geologists Vidyasagar Reddy and Omkar Jerath, and their assistant Laxman Sonawane — on official work in the area, went missing. Their bodies were later recovered from a valley near Tamkheda, across the hill covering Katalacha Kond from three sides.
In the small settlement of about 70 houses hardly anybody remembers the incident today. “We had absolutely no idea what happened to them (the deceased). It happened beyond the jungle,” said Bhatre, a frail man, pointing towards the hill from the backyard of his three-room house.
Three days after the incident, the police came in large numbers.
“After dusk they rounded up several men and booked them for the murders,” said Dnyandev Bhuvad, Bhatre’s brother-in-law.
The case was later handed over to state CID, which completed the investigation and filed a chargesheet in the sessions court at Alibaug.
At the beginning of the trial, a year after the arrests, the public prosecutor declared all but one accused innocent and urged the trial court to immediately set them free.
However, accused number 12, Bhatre, was convicted by the trial court in 1986 for attacking and killing the three officials even as all the other accused were acquitted. The Bombay High Court two years ago not only upheld Bhatre’s conviction but also convicted Ram Maruti Pawar, accused number 14.
“Bhatre was broke and tired,” said Bhuvad. “But a few close relatives and I decided to collect all the money we could and move the Supreme Court.”
Twenty-four years later, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, presided over by Justice Arijit Pasayat, said, “After critical examination of the prosecution evidence, it is not possible to say that any offence has been committed by accused number 2 to 15.”
The Supreme Court noticed the “disturbing features (in the trial court’s judgement)”, and acquitted both accused, terming the high court order as “equally baffling”.
Bhatre, who does not understand what this legal terminology means, has turned philosophical. “It (the case) happened because it was destined to,” he said. “I will now till my land and want to live a peaceful life. I do not seek revenge from anybody.”