Chhattisgarh court acquits 121 tribals in UAPA case after 5 years in jail
The accused were booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for allegedly assisting Maoists in the 2017 Burkapal attack, which killed 25 CRPF personnel.
A court in Chhattisgarh on Friday acquitted 121 tribals booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for allegedly assisting Maoists in 2017 Burkapal attack, citing lack of evidence against them.
A designated National Investigation Agency (NIA) court in Dantewada pronounced the acquittal order on Friday after which the tribals, who had been in jail for five years, were released on Saturday.
On the evening of April 24, 2017, the 74th battalion of Central Police Reserve Force (CRPF) came under heavy firing from Maoists, 100 meters from Burkapal village, killing 25 personnel including an inspector-rank officer.
Questioning the police investigation, the court said the prosecution failed to prove that arms and ammunition were recovered from the accused during the time of arrest and that they were present at the spot of the ambush.
“No evidence or statements recorded by the prosecution was able to establish that the accused were members of the Naxal wing and was involved in the crime. No arms or ammunition seized by the police were proved to be found from the accused,” the order said.
The Burkapal attack was the second deadliest in the Bastar region after the killing of 76 personnel in 2010 and the personnel attacked were guarding the Dornapal-Jagargonda road construction work.
In the next few days after the attack, the Chhattisgarh police registered a case in Chintagufa police station and booked a total of 120 tribals of six villages –Burkapal, Gondapalli, Chintagufa , Talmetla, Koraigundum and Tonguda. A woman was added as accused later taking the total number of arrested to 121.
The first information report (FIR) mentions Indian Penal Code (IPC) Sections 147, 148, 149, 120(B), 307, 302, 396, 397; Sections 25, 27 of Arms Act and Sections 3 and 5 of Explosive Substances Act. In the charge-sheet Chhattisgarh Vishesh Jan Surakhsha Adhinayam (CVJSA) and UAPA were also added.
After a delay of four years, the trial finally began in the NIA court at Dantewada in August 2021.
“A total of 25 prosecution witnesses were examined and the judgment was delivered on 15 July 2022 acquitting all the accused,” said Bichem Pondi, a lawyer for the accused.
After the acquittal, activists said the Burkapal case will be remembered as one of the injustices done to Bastar tribals in the name of anti-Maoist operations.
“Five years of their lives were wasted behind bars and they were brought to court hearings only twice during the trial, when it is mandatory to produce the accused in person in every hearing. Bail was denied in the designated NIA court at the district level as well as the high court,” said Bela Bhatia, a human rights activist and one of the defence lawyers in the case.
“Should the state police not be accused of criminal conspiracy to turn ordinary villagers as scapegoats in their fight against the Maoists? Will the state compensate them for their lost time or earnings?” Bhatia asked.
Hemala Ayatu, 30, who was released from Jaddalpur jail on Saturday said he was punished for doing nothing. “I was picked up by police from Sukma. I lost everything. I have done nothing but I was booked. I have no words to explain my pain in jail for five years,” said Ayatu.
When asked whether the court’s verdict will be challenged by the government in the upper court, nspector general of police, Bastar range, Sunderaj P said that the next course of action with regard to this case will be decided after thorough examination of the verdict passed by the jurisdiction court.
“The jurisdiction court concerned passed the verdict based on available evidence and circumstances of the case. In compliance with the court order 113 accused would be released from jail,” the IG said. Of the 121 accused, seven were minors who were released earlier and one died during the trial of the case