The police case against Communist Party of India leader Kartam Joga, arrested in connection with the April 6 Maoist ambush in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district, has been undermined by some witnesses — whose alleged testimony the authorities said they were going by — claiming that they have never given statements to the investigating officers.

Mr. Joga was arrested on September 14 at Konta for allegedly participating in the Tarmetla ambush in which 75 soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force and a policeman were killed by Maoists. The Chhattisgarh police said Mr. Joga was arrested on the basis of the testimonies of eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen Mr. Joga at the ambush site.

The CPI has condemned the arrest of Mr. Joga, who is the party's elected vice-president of the Konta Janpanchayat in Dantewada. “Kartam Joga has no connection with the Maoists,” CPI national secretary D. Raja said in an interview. “Joga's arrest is part of a sinister design in which at least nine CPI workers have been arrested in Dantewada,” he said, accusing the State government of targeting the CPI's mass base in the guise of anti-Maoist operations.

Mr. Raja questioned the timing of the arrest when a petition filed by Mr. Joga is due for hearing in the Supreme Court. Mr. Joga is the lead petitioner in writ petition (criminal) 119/2007, one of the two writs filed in the Supreme Court against Chhattisgarh, seeking compensation for the loss of life and property caused by the Salva Judum. The Salva Judum is a controversial programme under which Adivasis of the State were evacuated from their villages into fortified camps guarded by the police.

Refuting allegations that the police were involved in political vendetta, Deputy-Inspector General Vivekananda Sinha said all cases were filed on the basis of specific evidence and the charges presented before a court of law.

The Tarmetla case file, accessed by this correspondent, reveals that the police interviewed 25 eyewitnesses between August 4 and August 6 this year, four months after the ambush took place. Of them, 10 claimed to have seen Mr. Joga at the ambush site, looting rifles from the fallen CRPF soldiers and helping the wounded Maoist fighters. The unsigned statements have been made before a police officer, not a magistrate, and so are inadmissible as evidence in court.

Two of these witnesses retracted their accounts when contacted by this correspondent. “I have not given a statement to any policeman regarding Tarmetla,” said a witness, who the police record as saying that he saw Mr. Joga carrying injured Maoists.

Seeking anonymity as he feared reprisal from both the police and the Maoists, the witness said he was in his house when the ambush occurred. “The police have fabricated my account.”

The statements recorded by the police also differ with the information provided by sources in the CRPF intelligence. For instance, nine of the 10 witnesses implicating Mr. Joga claim to have been hidden behind a tree near the hill that dominates the landscape where the ambush occurred. They also claim to have seen the Maoists blow up a CRPF bulletproof vehicle en route to the ambush spot, implying that the witnesses took cover near the main road, a few metres north of the hill.

CRPF sources said the battle did not occur on the main road, but on paddy fields, southeast of the hill, separated from the road by 50 metres of trees and undergrowth. While the bodies of 25 soldiers were recovered from behind two paddy fields to the east of the hill, the remaining bodies were found 200 metres further south of the paddy fields — i.e. more than 250 metres from the road.

From the trail of bloodstains, investigators deduced that the bodies of the dead and injured Maoists were dragged to the forests south of the hill. For Mr. Joga to be identified, witnesses would have had to spot him at 300 metres, among 300 identically dressed Maoist fighters engaged in a pitched battle.

Mr. Joga's family has protested his innocence. “My father was at home with me in Sukma [about 100 km from the ambush],” said his son Kartam Mahendra.

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