2017 Maoist attack: Charged under UAPA, 121 tribals acquitted in Chhattisgarh
On the evening of April 24, 2017, the 74th battalion of CRPF came under heavy firing from Maoists, barely 100 metres from Burkapal village, in which 25 personnel, including an inspector-rank officer, were killed.
All 121 accused in the 2017 Maoist attack in Sukma district, in which 25 Central Police Reserve Force (CRPF) personnel were killed, on Saturday walked free after they were acquitted by a Chhattisgarh court a day ago, officials said.
Citing lack of evidence, a designated National Investigation Agency (NIA) court in Dantewada acquitted 121 accused, all tribals, booked under stringent provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for allegedly assisting Maoists in the April 2017 ambush at Burkapal village in the district.
“No evidence or statements recorded by the prosecution was able to establish that the accused were members of the Naxal wing and involved in the crime,” the court said in its order. “No arms or ammunition seized by the police were proved to be found from the accused.”
On the evening of April 24, 2017, the 74th battalion of CRPF came under heavy firing from Maoists, barely 100 metres from Burkapal village, in which 25 personnel, including an inspector-rank officer, were killed. The CRPF team of 90 jawans was guarding the Dornapal-Jagargonda road construction work. It was second deadliest attack in the Bastar region since the killing of 76 personnel in 2010.
Soon after the attack, the Chhattisgarh police registered a case at the Chintagufa police station and booked 120 tribals from six villages —Burkapal, Gondapalli, Chintagufa, Talmetla, Koraigundum and Tonguda. A woman was later booked in the case, taking total number of arrested to 121.
Initially, the tribals were booked under sections 147 (punishment for rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 149 (unlawful assembly), 120(B) (criminal conspiracy), 307 (attempt to murder), 302 (murder), 396 (dacoity with murder) and 397 (robbery with attempt to cause death or grievous hurt) of the Indian Penal Code, besides relevant sections of the Arms Act and the Explosive Substances Act.
In the charge sheet filed on October 26 , 2017, the police added provisions of the Chhattisgarh Vishesh Jan Suraksha Adhiniyam, 2005 and UAPA against the accused.
After a delay of four years, the trial in the case began in the NIA court at Dantewada in August 2021.
“Total 25 prosecution witnesses were examined and the judgment delivered on July 15 acquitted all the accused,” said Bichem Pondi, a lawyer for the accused.
Of the 121 accused, seven were minors and released earlier while one died during the trial.
Hemala Ayatu, 30, who was released from Jaddalpur jail on Saturday, said he had done nothing and yet punished. “I was picked up by the police from Sukma... I have done nothing but I was booked,” said Ayatu. “I have no words to explain my pain in jail for five years.”
Activists said the case will be remembered as “injustices” done to the tribals of Bastar 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 scapegoat in their fight against the Maoists?” Bhatia asked. “Will the state compensate them for their lost time or earnings?”
Inspector General of Police, Bastar range, Sunderaj P said the next course of action will be decided after thorough examination of the verdict passed by the jurisdiction court.
“The concerned jurisdiction court 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.