February 13, 2013
Soni Sori, the tribal accused of acting as a courier between Essar Steel and the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist), has been acquitted in a crucial case filed in 2010 by the Dantewada district police against 19 individuals for allegedly opening fire and using explosives to blow vehicles of Essar. Ms Sori was one of the key accused in the case.
“But the additional sessions court of Anita Dehariya could not find enough evidence to substantiate the allegations and hence Ms. Sori was acquitted yesterday [Tuesday],” said Ms. Sori’s lawyer K.K. Dubey. Ms. Sori was arrested in 2011 by the Chhattisgarh police for allegedly arranging transfer of money from the privately-owned Essar Group to the members of the banned CPI (Maoist). Altogether, six cases were registered against her and she has been acquitted in four cases so far.
Hole in prosecution case
The witnesses presented before the court could not relate Ms. Sori to the case (sessions trial number 5/11) of firing and burning vehicles using diesel and explosives. “None of the witnesses presented by the police could connect Soni to the incident and that left a gaping hole in the prosecution,” said Mr. Dubey. Incidentally, Ms. Sori was acquitted in another case about a week back. In that case, (sessions trial number 4/11) the allegation was of firing on police near Essar Beneficiation Plant in Kirandul. “There also, witnesses could not confirm if Soni was related to firing on the police,” Mr. Dubey said. . Last year, Ms. Sori was acquitted in two more cases related to firing in Kuakonda police station and burning of a block office. “However, the more critical allegations against Ms. Sori acting as a courier between Essar and the CPI (Maoist) and the attack on Congress leader Avdesh Singh Gautam are continuing,” said Mr. Dubey.
Ms. Sori — a tribal woman with three children — has emerged as an iconic figure symbolising the State’s attitude toward tribals since her arrest in October, 2011. Ms. Sori’s letter to her lawyer claiming that she was sexually assaulted in police custody under the direct supervision of a police officer, Ankit Garg, became a global rallying point on tribal atrocities. While Mr. Garg and the police continuously denied all the allegations, hundreds of intellectuals, academics, and civil society activists signed petitions, demanding justice for Ms. Sori — a ‘Stand Up For Soni Sori’ campaign was launched across the country. In major cities like London or New York, activists took to the streets, building up the case internationally for Ms. Sori and her 24-year-old activist-journalist relative, Lingaram Kodopi.
Interestingly, while Mr. Kodopi and Ms. Sori both are languishing in jail, like the other 2,000 tribal undertrials of south Chhattisgarh, for allegedly working with the Maoists, two of their co-accused got bail soon after the arrest.
D.V.C.S. Verma, the general manager at an Essar steel plant, and B.K. Lala, one of Essar’s contractors, were arrested in the same case allegedly for paying protection money to the Maoists, which according to police, Mr. Kodopi and Ms. Sori were carrying to the rebels. In fact, Mr. Lala was caught with Mr. Kodopi in the same Palnar market where allegedly Ms. Sori was also present.
While both Mr. Verma and Mr. Lala have been out on bail for a year, Ms. Sori and Mr. Kodopi are both behind bars in Bastar’s jails. Activists associated with the case feel that this is another ‘glaring example’ of injustice to the tribals. Ms. Sori’s lawyer, however, sounds optimistic: “Her acquittal in the all the minor cases may give her a speedy trial in the Essar case now.”