Soni Sori, the tribal school teacher accused of acting as a courier between Essar Steel and the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist), and Lingaram Kodopi, activist-journalist trained in Delhi, have been acquitted in one more crucial case by a Dantewada court.
Fifteen others, including activists of various mainstream political parties, were also acquitted. Among them were Congress leader Vijay Sodi, CPI leader Lala Ram Kunjam and a panchayat member of Dantewada, Sannuram Mandawi. Ms. Sori has now been acquitted in six of the eight cases filed against her.
They were accused of planning and executing an attack on a local Congress leader and contractor, Avdesh Singh Gautam, in which two persons were killed.
An FIR filed in Kuakonda police station said over 150 Maoist soldiers attacked Mr. Gautam’s house on the midnight of July 7 in 2010. Mr. Gautam’s brother-in-law Sanjay Singh and house attendant Dharmendra were killed. Mr. Gautam’s son and a guard were injured.
Mr. Gautam stated that 17 persons, including Ms. Sori and Mr. Kodopi, were present at the scene of the crime. On the basis of the available evidence and witness’ statements, several charges were brought against the accused under the Indian Penal Code, the Arms Act and the Explosive Substances Act, including criminal conspiracy, rioting, arson causing death, and attempt to murder.
“Additional sessions judge Anita Dehariya acquitted Soni Sori, Lingaram Kodopi and the others due to lack of evidence,” said Ms. Sori’s lawyer K.K. Dubey on the phone.
Last year, Ms. Sori was acquitted in two other cases. She was acquitted in two more in February this year — one of firing and using explosives to blow up vehicles of Essar Steel, and another of firing on the police near Essar Beneficiation Plant in Kirandul.
Two more cases are still in court. One accuses her of torching several vehicles. The other — the most crucial one — accuses her and Mr. Kodopi of planning to hand over “protection money” from Essar Steel to the Maoists. 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. While Ms. Sori and Mr. Kodopi are in jail, like thousands of tribal undertrials (UTs) of south Chhattisgarh, Mr. Verma and Mr. Lala got bail within months of their arrest.
Ashok Jain, a senior lawyer in Dantewada representing some of the accused who were acquitted along with Ms. Sori, said Wednesday’s judgement proved how tribals were detained on false charges. “Their families are ruined as they spend several years as UTs. Wherever cases are followed up, as in Soni Sori’s case, the accused are acquitted,” Mr. Jain said.
Lawyers appearing in the high profile case feel that while the cases of Ms. Sori or tribal rights activist Binayak Sen got enough “attention from all quarters,” thousands of UT tribals were getting absolutely no attention from the media or the civil society.” “Most of these cases are so flimsy that higher courts may not even admit them or, even when they are admitted, the accused get bail within hours. But lack of finance and people’s support keeps these tribals behind bars for years,” said one of the lawyers.
“How can a poor tribal be arrested just because he is a resident of an area controlled by the Maoists or has shared a lunch with the rebels, possibly under duress?” said another lawyer.
Ms. Sori’s lawyers said they had moved a bail petition in the Chhattisgarh High Court.