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Indian church calls for swift trials and equal consideration for tribal women

The Catholic Bishops Conference of India’s Commission welcomed a court order convicting over 215 government officials of raping 18 indigenous women during a 1992 raid for smuggled sandalwood in Vachathi, a tribal village in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu, South India.

On September 29, 2023, the Madras High Court found 215 government employees from the Tamil Nadu state police, forest, and revenue departments guilty of rape and extensive property destruction that occurred on June 20, 1992, during a search operation in a village in the Dharmapuri district of south India.

A session court in Dharmapuri found 126 forest personnel guilty in 2011, including four officers of the Indian Forest Service, 84 policemen, and five officials of the revenue department.

There were 269 accused, 54 of whom died during trial, and 215 who were sentenced to 1 to 10 years in prison.

Father Nicholas Barla, Secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India’s Commission for Scheduled Tribes or Indigenous People, said, “We welcome the high court order as it has ushered in justice for the survivors.”

In 2004, police killed sandalwood smuggler Koose Munisamy Veerappan and suspected the residents of Vachathi village of involvement.

Justice P. Velmurugan said in his order, “From the evidence of the witnesses, it is clear that all the officials, including the District Collector, District Forest Officer, and the Superintendent of Police, even though they knew who the real culprits were, for the reason best known to them, did not take any action against them, and to safeguard the real culprits, the innocent villagers were victimized. Therefore, this court concludes that the prosecution has proved that all the appellants committed the offense.”

He dismissed the appeals made by the officials challenging their convictions at a district court in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu.

“There are no merits in these appeals, and the same are liable to be dismissed,” he said.

The church official said, "The court order asserts the right of survivors to get justice.”

However, the courts need to speed up the justice process, as Father Barla told UCA News on October 2, 2023.

“I'm concerned about the delays in compensating the victims and punishing the convicts,” Barla said.

According to Justice Velmurugan, the Tamil Nadu government must also immediately reimburse every 18 rape victims 10 lakh Indian rupees (about $12,000) and recover 50% of the amount from those convicted.

The judge also instructed the state government to provide the 18 rape survivors or their families with suitable jobs—either self-employment or permanent employment.

A report will be submitted to the court on the welfare measures taken by the government to improve the standard of living and livelihood in Vachathi village after this incident has occurred.

"In other parts of the country, atrocities against indigenous people are also reported, and victims and their families live in fear as justice is delayed," said the priest.

“In this particular case, the high court took 12 years to pass an order on the appeal, and the government should make special efforts to speed up trials. It will prove a case of justice delayed is justice denied if the convicts again appeal to the Supreme Court,” Barla said.

The court stated, "Unfortunately, the then government failed to protect the tribal women, and it only safeguarded the erroneous officials and also failed to find out the real sandalwood smugglers.”

“With the help of the then government, revenue officials, police officials, and forest officials staged a big drama to safeguard the actual smugglers and the big shots. “The pain and difficulties faced by tribal women must be compensated in terms of money and jobs,” the report stated, as innocent tribal women were heavily affected.

In addition to smuggling sandalwood, Veerappan was also accused of poaching over 2,000 elephants and smuggling ivory, killing 184 people, more than half of whom were police officers.

During the last quarter century, he lived hidden in forests in southern India, in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.


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