Setting aside the conviction by a lower court, the Patna High Court on Wednesday acquitted all the 26 accused in the 1997 case of Laxmanpur Bathe massacre, in which 58 Dalits were killed allegedly by members of the Ranvir Sena, a militia of upper caste Bhumihar landlords.
A Division Bench of Justices V. N. Sinha and A. K. Lal ruled that the prosecution witnesses “are not reliable” and the appellants deserved to be given the benefit of the doubt. The acquitted persons should be released forthwith if they were not wanted in any other case, it said.
On April 7, 2010, Vijay Prakash Mishra, additional district and sessions judge, Patna, had given the death sentence to 16 convicts and life imprisonment to 10 others. Nineteen others were acquitted.
Wednesday’s verdict, coming 16 years after the massacre, is a big blow to the prosecution. “We will examine what went wrong and then decide if we want to go in appeal,” Director-General of Police Abhayanand told The Hindu.
The crime, which occurred under the Mehandia police station in the erstwhile Arwal subdivision, now in Jehanabad district, on the night of December 1, 1997, is one of most brutal in the series of massacres in Bihar’s bloody history of caste oppression. Among the 58 deceased were 27 women and 16 children.
This is the third instance of acquittals, after the verdicts in the Bathani tola and Nagri Bazaar massacre cases in July 2012 and March 2013 respectively.
Counsel Kanhaiya Prasad Singh, representing the accused who had been awarded the death sentence in this case, told The Hindu, “There were 91 witnesses. My main contention was that the FIR had names of people who were not seen at the time of occurrence of the attack. The police went to the village, but no one gave any name. The government prepared a list of forward caste names and supplied them later.”
But the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) said the acquittals “are shameful.”
In a statement, general secretary Deepankar Bhattacharya, said: “Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has to answer about his promise to give justice to the victims of massacres. Former President K.R. Narayanan had termed the Bathe massacre ‘a national shame’.”
Mr. Bhattacharya said the verdict was another instance in a series of acquittals in cases of massacres, the others being Bathani tola, Nagri, Mianpur, Narayanpur and Khagdi-Bigha. He demanded that a special investigation team be set up under the supervision of the Supreme Court to guarantee justice to massacre victims.