Odisha: Statement in solidarity with struggle of prisoners demanding conclusion of trials

April 11, 2016

Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee

Bagaicha, Namkum, Ranchi

Date: April 10, 2016

Support the Struggle launched again by Persecuted Prisoners in Odisha Demanding Conclusion of their Trials!

Ashutosh Soren, Kishore Jena, Kamlakanta Sethi, Rabi Dulai, Chandrabati Tukruka, Ranjit Sana and another, falsely accused in 5 cases pertaining to a 2008 series of Maoist attacks in Nayagarh district, including a raid on the local police armoury, are on hunger strike since March 30th, and their condition is most serious at the moment.

12 prisoners, 7 in Bhubaneswar Special Jail and 5 in Bhanjanagar Sub-jail of Ganjam district of Odisha, in incarceration for a period of 3 to 8 years as undertrials launched an indefinite hunger strike since March 30 and 31, respectively, demanding an end to the deliberate procrastination going on in their trials in spite of clear directions from the Odisha High Court to conclude them long before.

Those who went on strike at Bhubaneswar were:

1. Kamalakanta Sethi, aged about 37 years.

2. Chandrabati Tukruka (woman), aged about 30 years.

3. Asutosh Soren, aged about 46 years.

4. Kishore Kumar Jena, aged about 43 years.

5. Rabi Dulai, aged about 30 years.

6. Ranjit Sana, aged about 29 years.

7. One other.

They are all accused in one and the same set of cases at Nayagarh, 90 km south of Bhubaneswar, and used to be taken to the court at Nayagarh for their hearings until recently. The cases, 5 in number, are related to one particular chain of events in the conflict between the Maoists and the State. In response to a bail petition heard in the High Court for some of the accused in this case, the court had given an order rejecting the bail plea, but directing that the trials be completed by the end of the second quarter of 2012. There were a couple of more bail pleas made after that as the trial court failed to dispose off the cases in the stipulated time, following which fresh orders in a similar vein were issued by the High Court, denying bails but directing to conclude the trials forthwith. However, only 3 of the 5 trials have been concluded so far, 2 others are still pending.

All the 3 concluded cases, out of the total of 5, have resulted in acquittals. The cases that have resulted in acquittals include the main armoury raid case wherein all those facing the trials were accused of having participated in the raid. The remaining 2 trials have remained blocked for long, with the Investigating Officers neither producing witnesses nor coming forth themselves to depose. The failure of the prosecution witnesses to depose over almost a year now has led to this form of protest with the hope that this might bring pressure upon the Government and the concerned trial court to adopt stringent measures to ensure a speedy disposal of the last two cases by producing the remaining witnesses for the trial hearings.

Less than a year ago, these same prisoners had resorted to a hunger strike, after which there was an agreement with the Government to conclude the remaining cases soon. However, only one of the then remaining three cases was concluded within a few weeks, after which there has not been any further progress.

From March 31st, another group of alleged Maoist prisoners languishing at Bhanjanagar Sub-jail also joined the indefinite hunger strike. They were:

1. Malati Majhi (woman), aged about 24 years.

2. Telem Soni (woman), aged about 25 years.

3. K. Anita Majhi (woman), aged about 28 years.

4. Kandra Dalabehera, aged about 40 years.

5. Kadam Bijal, aged about 27 years.

While these 5 political prisoners were learnt to have withdrawn their strike subsequently, all the 7 who began the hunger strike at Bhubaneswar Special Jail, are still continuing their hunger strike, and have been admitted to the Government Hospital at Cuttack in a serious condition.

The oldest among the striking prisoners is Ashutosh Soren who belongs to Dhanbad, Jharkhand, and is in his late forties. The prisoners are predominantly adivasis. Ashutosh Soren also faces two cases at Rourkela where he was arrested along with another person. Kamlakanta Sethi faces one more case in the Koraput district of the state.

A chronic diabetes patient, Ashutosh Soren was admitted last week to the Government Hospital at Cuttack in a serious condition, along with the others. Kishore Jena is also in an extremely serious condition, having developed blood dysentery while on the hunger strike..

Earlier, following a petition filed by Mr. Vishwapriya Kanungo, an advocate from Peoples Union of Civil Liberties, and Mr. Narendra Mohanty, a social activist from Campaign Against Fabricated Cases, with the Odisha State Human Rights Commission urging urgent attention to the ongoing hunger strike, the OSHRC Acting Chairperson, Shri BK Mishra, had passed an order directing the Principal Secretary (Home) and the Director General of Police to ensure that the witnesses, who are required to depose for the said trials, including the Investigating Officers, do so immediately, so that the trials may be concluded without further delay. The OSHRC Acting Chairperson also directed the Inspector-general (Prisons) to take measures to prevent the hunger strike from snowballing into a major strike by prisoners all over the state.

The argument advanced by the petitioners was that it was immaterial that the cases pertained to serious offences. The right to speedy trial was a fundamental right of an undertrial under Article 21 of the Constitution. Hence there could be no ground for any delay in the conduct of the trials.

The only apparent reason for such gross violation of this constitutional right of these prisoners is that the state intends to keep them imprisoned for as long as possible. Recent reports about the deteriorating health of the prisoners indicate that the government does not seem to care even if they lose their lives. The height of the inhuman handling of the situation by the Odisha Police and the government is that even in this serious condition they have all been handcuffed while they lie as weak as ever on their hospital beds. In the absence of pressure from civil society to expedite their much delayed trials, the impunity of the state goes unchallenged.

Most of the prisoners are so poor that their family members who come and meet them occasionally would themselves need help and advice for their own upkeep. None of them are in a position to confer with the appointed lawyers and decide what course of action should be taken in order to fetch justice in time.

At present there are close to 400 undertrials in about 18 jails of Odisha facing trials, all proceeding at snail pace, or simply not moving ahead at all. The offences would range from waging war or some such conspiracy against the state, to sedition and/or indulging in terrorist activities as per the sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, attacking police personnel who are government employees, restricting or restraining then from performing their duties, committing murders, attempting to murder and/or causing physical injuries with the use of sharp or blunt objects which may serve as weapons, often while holding illegal arms, either small and automatic and semi-automatic, or country-made guns.

The prisoners struggle could benefit if letters are sent in support of their demands to the Director General of Police, Principal Secretary (Home), as well as to the Chief Secretary, the Chief Justice of Odisha and the Chief Minister.

Stan Swamy               Sudha Bharadwaj           Prasanta Kumar Jena                     Parthosarothi Ray

On behalf of:

Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee,

Bagaicha, ATC Campus, Namkum, Ranchi.