IN A landmark ruling, the Madras High Court on Friday dismissed all appeals and upheld a sessions court order which had held 215 people — all officials of forest, police and revenue departments — guilty of atrocities, including sexual assault, during a 1992 raid for smuggled sandalwood in Vachathi, a tribal village in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu.
“This court finds that the evidence of all the victims and prosecution witnesses are cogent and consistent, which are reliable,” Justice P Velmurugan said in his order, adding that the prosecution has proved its case through its evidence.
On June 20, 1992, officials raided Vachathi, apparently looking for smuggled sandalwood. During the raid, there was extensive destruction of property and livestock and 18 women were raped.
In 2011, a sessions court in Dharmapuri held as guilty 126 forest personnel, including four Indian Forest Service officers, 84 policemen and five revenue department officials in connection with the case. Out of the 269 accused, 54 died during the trial, and the remaining 215 were sentenced from 1 to 10 years in jail.
Upholding the ruling, the High Court on Friday directed the sessions court to immediately secure the custody of all the accused to serve the remaining period of sentence.
Justice Velmurugan also ordered the Tamil Nadu government to immediately release Rs 10 lakh compensation to each rape survivor as ordered by a division bench in 2016, and recover 50% of the amount from the men convicted of the offence.
The court also directed the state to take stringent action against the then District Collector, Superintendent of Police and District Forest Officer for shielding the accused.
Justice Velmurugan said in his order: “From the evidence of the witnesses, it is clear that all the officials, including the District Collector, District Forest Officer and the Superintendent of Police, even though knew who were the real culprits, for the reason best known to them, they did not taken any action against them and to safeguard the real culprits, the innocent villagers were victimised. Therefore, this court comes to the conclusion that prosecution has proved that all the appellants committed the offence.”
The judge also directed the state government to provide suitable jobs – either self-employment or permanent – to the 18 rape survivors, or their family members. He directed the government to report to the court on the welfare measures taken to improve the livelihood and standard of living in Vachathi village after this incident.
Outrage over the Vachathi case had prompted a CBI probe in 1995, leading to a chargesheet against 269 accused, including the then Principal Chief Conservator of Forests M Harikrishnan, and other senior officials.