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.

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