Tribal schoolteacher Soni Sori and her relative, journalist Lingaram Kodopi, have been denied bail by Chhattisgarh High Court in the Essar Steel case on Monday. Rejecting the bail petition, Justice Prashant Kumar Mishra of Chhattisgarh High Court said that “on basis of the seriousness of the evidence,” the bail petition had been rejected. Activists, associated with campaigns to free Ms. Sori, were perhaps expecting a positive order, especially after her acquittal in all other major cases in recent months.
“This is extremely disappointing,” said one the campaigners.
Ms. Sori’s lawyer in High Court, Shishir Dixit, told The Hindu that the judge listened to the argument for about an hour and then rejected the petition. “He said that the crime is of a heinous nature and on basis of the seriousness of the evidence, bail has been rejected,” said Mr. Dixit. Ms. Sori’s co-accused Lingaram Kodopi’s bail plea has also been rejected. Mr. Kodopi is a professionally-trained tribal journalist from Dantewada and is also linked with Ms. Sori in the Essar Steel case.
Other than one minor case of allegedly torching vehicles, where Ms. Sori got bail last May, both of them have been acquitted in all other cases. Ms. Sori has been acquitted in six other cases in the last one and half year, while Mr. Kodopi has been acquitted in the only other case of planning an attack on local Congress leader Avdesh Gautam.
The remaining case is the one of Essar Steel, where both of them have been accused of arranging “protection money” on behalf of the company to Maoists. The main accused, D.V.C.S Verma, general manager at an Essar steel plant, and B.K. Lala, an Essar contractor, were arrested for allegedly disbursing the money. Both Mr. Verma and Mr. Lala got bail within first few months of their arrests.
“Essar’s men get bail”
One of Mr. Kodopi’s lawyers, Amarnath Pandey, said that while the court’s order should be “observed with utter reverence,” the developments in Chhattisgarh are “deeply disturbing.”
“The co-accused of Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi are managers or contractors of Essar Steel. The manager D.V.C.S. Verma got bail on grounds of ill-health and the police did not file a charge sheet against the contractor B.K. Lala within 90 days, and thus facilitated his bail. Are we to conclude that if one is with Essar, he can get bail, and rot in jail if she or he is not an employee [of Essar]?” Mr. Pande told The Hindu.
He also said that while police allegedly seized Rs. 15 lakh from Mr. Lala, while his “client [Mr. Kodopi] was not carrying any money… Yet Lingaram is in jail and Lala is out on bail.”
Refusing to comment on the order on granting bail in an allegedly discriminatory manner, an Essar spokesperson told The Hindu that “the granting of bail is purely the jurisdiction of the court and based on merits and records before the court.”
The bail plea of Ms. Sori and Mr. Kodopi was moved to High Court in Bilaspur last month amidst speculations that government had disapproved bail to almost all the tribal people who were arrested on charges related to naxalite activities. “The very low rate of bail to tribal people arrested for allegedly supporting the naxalites fuels the speculation,” said a lawyer. Moreover, the fact that Ms. Sori has always been acquitted in previous cases, yet never granted bail has also kept her lawyers in two minds. This prompted all her lawyers to get on board and move the bail petition to High Court last month, just to get it rejected on Monday afternoon.
“We will decide the course of the follow up action once we receive a copy of the order,” said Mr. Dixit. "