Of the six tribal women of Shamsetti village in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh who in 2009 gave statements in court that they had been gang-raped by Salwa Judum functionaries, three have now withdrawn their charges. Three key witnesses — family members of the women — have also retracted their statements.

Some lawyers in Dantewada familiar with the case say that the women are withdrawing due to “severe pressure” from several quarters. Many Salwa Judum members have now been inducted into the regular police force as constables.

The lawyers say that the remaining victims and witnesses may appear in court soon and retract their statements. “It is difficult to say whether their complaints were made under pressure or the withdrawal. But the way they are turning hostile it is a matter of time before the accused, who are on bail, are set free,” said Mamta Sharma, the chief public prosecutor at Dantewada court, who is defending the women.

“Clearly there is severe pressure on these women, else why would they retract their statements?” a lawyer said on condition of anonymity. Sudha Bharadwaj, the lawyer who represented the Shamsetti women in the Konta court where the statements were recorded, said the women and their relatives recorded their statements through a translator in 2009. “The magistrate did not record any unusual demeanour on their part. Surprisingly, in these cases the accused were granted bail even prior to withdrawal, meaning prosecution did not seriously oppose bail and no departmental enquiry, not that I know of, was carried out against the accused, who are State employees,” she said.

In December 2012, The Hindu reported about six tribal women who had come forward to lodge formal complaints of gang rape against Special Police Officers (SPO) of the now defunct anti-Maoist vigilante force Salwa Judum, amidst allegations of hundreds of rapes in the conflict-ridden south Chhattisgarh between 2005 and 2009. With some of them withdrawing their statements now, many in Dantewada, Chattisgarh, are asking if this was yet another instance of miscarriage of justice — one in which the State actively connived.

In the first week of February 2013, Mira and Sanika (names changed) retracted their statements in front of the sessions judge of Dantewada, A. K. Beck. According to their statements given in June 2009 before the judicial magistrate of Konta, Amrit Kerketta, both women, along with four others, had described how they were gang-raped in 2006 by seven SPOs of Sukma district. However, in their latest statements, copies of which are with The Hindu, Mira and Sanika stated that “nothing ever happened” to them. Mira said, “I never went to the police station to complain. I never submitted any complaint letter in the Konta court or made any statement in any court.”

The legal fraternity in Dantewads is questioning the validity of the retractions. “Are we to assume that the magistrate in Konta recorded false statements? Or that the women are faking statements now,” asked a lawyer.

An investigation by The Hindu revealed that one of the accused, Kwashi Mangalram, was picking up the complainants and witnesses from Shamsetti and bringing them to the court.

Mr. Mangalram denied the accusation and said he was not pressurising the women. An SPO-turned-peon in Dornapal School, he said, “I am inspired by Communist thought, you can check with CPI leaders. I am against such actions [rape].”

Last Saturday, at the Dantewada court, another complainant, Era (name changed), retracted her statement. When asked by the court if she knew one of the accused, Madkam Kama, a constable from Erabore, the young Muria Gond girl took a cursory look at him and denied having seen him before hurrying away. However, Era had accused Kama of rape four years ago in court. On Saturday, she denied having made a statement in 2009.

While Era was retracting her statements inside the court, four of the main accused, Kiche Nanda, Biddu Raja, Markam Kama, Kwashi Mangalram — all former SPOs — were seated on a bench outside. Nanda, who headed the dreaded Nanda group at the peak of the Salwa Judum movement, denied his involvement in the gang rape when he spoke to this correspondent in December. Markam Kama, another accused, also refuted the charges against him and said: “I am seeing this girl [Era] for the first time.”

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