The high court in India’s Tamil Nadu state has upheld the convictions of hundreds of government officials for atrocities against tribals, including rapes of 18 women, three decades ago.
The convicts include policemen and officials from the forest and revenue departments.
They had attacked the tribals in June 1992, accusing them of aiding the dreaded sandalwood smuggler Veerappan.
They assaulted the men and raped women, vandalised homes and killed livestock.
The crime has come to be known as the Vachathi case after the name of the village where it took place.
All the 269 accused denied the allegations against them, but in 2011, a trial court convicted them, pronouncing them guilty under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act. Seventeen of the men were also found guilty of rape.
As 54 of the accused died during the trial, the remaining 215 men were sentenced to prison terms between one and 10 years. The convicts appealed in Madras High Court in the southern city of Chennai.
A lawyer for the survivors told the BBC that the convicts have all been out on bail. “Barring the 17 men who were convicted of rape, most others did not spend any time in prison,” she said.
On Friday, Justice P Velmurugan ordered the state to give compensation of 1m rupees ($12,034; £9,844) to each victim and suitable employment, legal website LiveLaw reported.
The judgement also called for stringent action against the then senior-most district official, forest official and superintendent of police, it added.
In March, Justice Velmurugan had visited Vachathi, located in the foothills of picturesque Sitheri hills in Dharmapuri district.
What happened in Vachathi?
In the 1990s, forests and villages in the area had seen intense search operations by law enforcement officials looking to catch Veerappan, India’s most ruthless bandit who was accused of more than 100 murders, kidnapping, smuggling and poaching. (He was finally killed by police in 2004.)
Vachathi was often visited by the authorities who accused the villagers of aiding the smuggler and being involved in sandalwood smuggling.
On the morning of 20 June 1992, villagers and forest department officials had clashed during one such visit and one forester was injured.
According to court documents, a few hours later, a team of 155 forest personnel, 108 policemen and six revenue officials raided the village.
They found mostly women and children and a few old men in the village as most men had escaped to the nearby hills where they remained in hiding for months.
The raiders went on a rampage, mercilessly beating up men and women, ransacking homes, destroying livestock and repeatedly raping 18 women.
More than 100 women and children were taken into custody and jailed for months under fake charges – 20 years later, the high court threw out the cases saying they were “maliciously instituted with an ulterior motive”.
The Hindu newspaper called the attack an example of “what brutal law enforcers and callous government officials could do to the poor and the powerless”.
The horrific rapes
A huge banyan tree in the centre of the village stands as a witness to the assault.
The villagers recently told BBC Tamil that men, women and children were made to assemble there and were beaten up severely.
A group of 18 young women and girls was separated from the group and taken to a nearby lake where they were repeatedly raped.
One rape survivor, who was just 13 then, said she begged the officials to spare her since she was just a schoolgirl, but they ignored her pleas.
“They raped us, we were beaten up, all over the village, we could hear people crying and wailing,” she said.
“After they raped us near the lake, they took us to the police station and we were not allowed to sleep the whole night. I was taken to jail along with my sister, uncle, aunt and mother,” she added.
When they returned from jail weeks later, they found their grains and vessels thrown out, clothes burnt and carcasses of their cattle floating in the village well.
The long road to justice
The tribals’ fight for justice has been long and arduous, with roadblocks delaying it at each step.
Officials initially denied any wrongdoing. The police refused to lodge any complaints and courts turned them away saying police and government officials couldn’t have raped them.
It was handed over to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) following campaigns by civil society activists and members of the Communist Party of India (Marxists).
In its report, the CBI confirmed that the policemen and officials ran amok, thrashing men, women and children, and demolishing huts.
It is only with the support of activists and the persistence of rape survivors that justice was been finally serviced in the Vachathi case.
Source : BBC