THE Additional Sessions Court in Tirupati recently acquitted 288 Tamils who were held in prisons in Andhra Pradesh for the past two years in a case relating to the killing of two forest officers and the smuggling of red sanders logs. The incident happened on December 15, 2013, in the Seshachalam forests on the foothills of Tirumala when the two officers, Deputy Range Officer L. Sridhar and Assistant Beat Officer David Kumar Karunakar, were on patrol.
The Andhra Pradesh police arrested 356 people in connection with the case. The majority of them, including four juveniles, were from Tamil Nadu. Sixty-four of them were woodcutters from Andhra Pradesh, and they were later granted bail. Five of the arrested persons died during the period of the trial. The indoor stadium on the premises of Sri Venkateswara Arts College in Tirupati was converted into a temporary court hall, an exercise that, according to legal experts, has no precedent in the country’s judicial history.
The judge contended that the prosecution had not proved the case beyond reasonable doubt and ordered the release of 347 accused, including 288 Tamils from the border districts of Vellore, Tiruvannamalai, Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri.
A team of lawyers led by K. Kranti Chaitanya from Andhra Pradesh, supported by a panel of advocates set up by the Tamil Nadu government with a fund of Rs.8 lakh as litigation expenses, appeared for the accused. The Tamil Nadu government in its press statement pointed to the efforts of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in obtaining the release of the arrested persons.
The Chief Minister, it said, instructed the then Director General of Police to obtain the details of those imprisoned and, on the basis of that information, wrote a letter to her Andhra Pradesh counterpart, N. Chandrababu Naidu. The Chief Minister, the release said, pointed out that the charge sheet in the case had not been filed within 90 days. A total of 312 petitions seeking free legal aid, received from the families of the accused, were also forwarded to the Andhra Pradesh State Legal Services Authority. The State also secured bail for 172 others who had been arrested in other cases of red sanders smuggling.
The killing of 20 woodcutters from Tamil Nadu in an encounter by the Andhra Pradesh Police’s Special Task Force in the Seshachalam forests in the wee hours of April 7, 2015, led to the unearthing of a racket in the smuggling of red sanders logs from Andhra Pradesh (“Law of the jungle”, Frontline, May 15, 2015). The Tamil Nadu government sanctioned Rs.3 lakh to the families of the deceased after registering a strong protest with the Andhra Pradesh government saying that it was a “gross violation of human rights”.
The Andhra Pradesh government, in response, claimed that the State had to save red sanders trees from smugglers who had international connections. It claimed that in its anti-smuggling drive, it had filed 4,800 cases under Sections 302 (murder) and 307 (attempt to murder) of the Indian Penal Code and under the Indian Arms Act, the Indian Forest Act, the Wildlife Protection Act, and the Preventive Detention Act.
After the Seshachalam encounter, activist groups such as the Civil Liberties Committee of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and the Hyderabad-based Human Rights Forum, besides Tamil Nadu-based groups such as the CPI (ML) and the All India People’s Forum (AIPF), took up the issue of people languishing in prisons in Andhra Pradesh.
The killing of woodcutters from Tamil Nadu prompted the State government to initiate various welfare measures in the border districts to discourage the poor from taking up illicit felling of trees.
A. Chandra Mohan, National Campaign Committee member of the AIPF and Tamil Nadu State committee member of the CPI(ML), said his organisation sought the Tamil Nadu government’s intervention in the matter so that the poor did not have to take up illicit felling. “We urged the State to provide free legal aid to all the accused and to work for the speedy release of those jailed. Many organisations, including the Tamil Nadu S.T. Malayalee Peravai and Dalit Research Centre, have joined us,” he said.
He said the National Scheduled Tribes Commission should conduct an inquiry into the actions of the Andhra Pradesh special police against the woodcutters, especially those from Tamil Nadu, and the denial of bail to them. He demanded that the released persons should be given Rs.10 lakh each as compensation by the Andhra Pradesh government and Rs.5 lakh each by the Tamil Nadu government as rehabilitation assistance. The alienated tribal lands, he said, should be reassessed and redistributed to the tribal people.
Meanwhile, the Andhra Pradesh government amended its Forest Act recently to increase the jail term for illegal felling and smuggling of red sanders to five years from six months and also to make timber smuggling a non-bailable offence. The property of those convicted will be attached under the amended legal provision.
Red sanders (Pterocarpus santalinus) is an endangered species and is protected under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It is in demand for its medicinal, aphrodisiacal and ornamental properties in China, Japan, Myanmar and Thailand.