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Verdict in a Veerappan case

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-

The special TADA court's acquittal of 109 of the accused persons in the 'Veerappan associates case' evokes a mixed response.

RAVI SHARMA recently in Mysore and Kolathur

IT was hardly surprising that none of the protagonists except the defence lawyers appeared happy with the September 29 verdict of the designated Special Terrorist and Disruptive (Prevention) Act (TADA) court in Mysore in the 'Veerappan associates' cases. Even for those who seemed to have benefited from the verdict of Judge D. Krishnappa when he acquitted 109 of the 123 accused persons (only 14 were convicted), it was a pyrrhic victory.

Of the 109 accused persons (including 12 women) who were acquitted, 39 had already spent seven to eight years in jail. Of the 14 persons who were convicted, six were set free since they had been incarcerated as undertrials for periods that are longer than the jail terms handed down to them. Of the remaining eight accused, seven were sentenced to life.

While the verdict brought the curtain down on the cases, it also served as another instance of justice delayed being as good as justice denied. The cases had been mired in controversy, delayed inordinately and almost derailed by the incident involving the kidnapping of Kannada film actor Rajkumar by the forest brigand in July 2000 (Frontline, September 1, 2000).

THE TADA cases pertain to four First Information Reports filed at the Ramapuram police station and the Male Mahadeshwara Hills (M. M. Hills) police station (both in Karnataka) in 1992 and 1993. The accused were charged under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The cases were transferred to the special TADA court as the charge-sheets said that the police "could not control the actions of Veerappan under the IPC, the Arms Act, the Explosives Act" and were hence "compelled to enforce TADA provisions".

Subsequently the cases registered with the Ramapuram police station bore the numbers 44/93 (the case relating to Veerappan ambush and killing of Karnataka Special Task Force chief T. Harikrishna and Sub-Inspector Shakeel Ahmed and four other STF men near Meenyam) and 63/94 (the one pertaining to the attack by Veerappan and his gang on the Ramapuram police station, in which five policemen were killed). The cases registered with the M.M. Hills police station bore the numbers 66/94 (when Karnataka Superintendent of Police Gopal Hosur was injured and five policemen were killed near Rangaswamyoddu, between M.M. Hills and Talabeta) and 67/94 (the case relating to a landmine blast engineered by Veerappan near the Palar bridge on the road between Gopinatham and M.M. Hills, in which Tamil Nadu STF official Gopalakrishnan was injured and 22 personnel died).

Although technically the trial in the cases started in 1997, not a single witness deposed before the special court until November 1999. In July 1999 the government told the designated TADA court that since a high-security building could not be found for the trial, a new building would have to be built first.

When a number of letters written to the Karnataka government met with no response, non-governmental organisations filed 40 writ petitions in the Karnataka High Court in October 1999 seeking the dropping of the charges under TADA. The petitions were heard for three days in December 1999 and dismissed in February 2000, with the Judges holding the view that the charges fell under TADA provisions. A venue was then found for the trial.

When Veerappan, after kidnapping Rajkumar, demanded that the detainees be freed, the Karnataka government did a volte-face and secured the release of the accused on bail on August 28, 2000, by dropping the TADA charges under Section 321 of the Criminal Procedure Code. But this was successfully challenged by Deputy Superintendent of Police (Retd) Abdul Kareem, the father of Sub-Inspector Shakeel Ahmed, in the Supreme Court. The September 29 verdict was a natural corollary to the TADA proceedings. Of the 123 persons who had been arrested, 71 had secured bail in 1996 on the grounds that their involvement in the crimes was of an indirect nature. The remaining 52 detainees languished in jail. Of those released on bail, Meke Madaiah was not able to secure his freedom since he was unable to afford the surety amount.

A QUESTION mark hangs over the future of the majority of the acquitted persons. They would be returning to their villages near the forests where Veerappan is holed up. Most of them hail from Marthalli in Karnataka's Kollegal taluk and from villages located on the Tamil Nadu side of the border.

K. Muruga was 14 years when he was picked up by the STF in 1994 on charges of assisting the Veerappan gang. His father S. Keladi, a quarry contractor, had also been arrested on charges of supplying explosives to the gang. Today, at 22, Muragan is too old to continue his schooling. He said that he would rather cultivate the piece of land that the family owns.

Muniswamy and wife Seva, like a number of others, were accused of supplying food to the gang. While the couple was acquitted, for another couple, Veeraswamy and Chinnaponnu, the verdict was a mixed one. While Chinnaponnu was released, Veeraswamy was sentenced to life in the Ramapuram police station case.

Kamala, an eight-year-old girl from Karnataka's Santhanapalayam was, hardly 35 days old when her father Gynaprakash was picked up by the Karnataka STF and booked under provisions of the TADA for allegedly assisting Veerappan in the Palar blast case. Her mother Selvamary, who works as a coolie, had to bring up Kamala and three other children singlehandedly. One of them is a diabetic and needs medicines worth Rs.600 a month. Gynaprakash has been sentenced to life imprisonment.

The large number of acquittals point to the indiscriminate nature of the arrests and detentions that the STFs of both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu had resorted to during 1992-93 when they were under pressure to act in the wake of a string of murders committed by the Veerappan gang. Many of the detainees were acquitted mainly because the Court took the stand that no reliance could be placed on the confessional statements of the accused. The court held that in most of the cases the confessional statements, self-incriminatory and inculpatory of others, were not supported with corroborative evidence.

Although the accused expressed relief at their acquittal, police personnel and the families of police personnel killed by the gang were naturally aghast at the verdict. Abdul Kareem called the verdict a "crucifixion of justice" and has vowed to move the Supreme Court.

Said a former Karnataka STF chief: "The verdict does not prove that they are innocent; rather it shows that their guilt could not be established."

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