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Indian church urges speedy trials, justice for tribal women

Conviction of 217 officials for raping 18 tribal women upheld after 12 years by a top court in southern Tamil Nadu

Tribal women performing their traditional dance in front of a group of foreign tourists at Jana Vikas Center in the eastern Odisha state, India.

Tribal women performing their traditional dance in front of a group of foreign tourists at Jana Vikas Center in the eastern Odisha state, India. (Photo: UCAN files)

Published: October 02, 2023 12:01 PM GMT

Updated: October 02, 2023 01:03 PM GMT

An office of India's Catholic bishops has welcomed a court order convicting over 200 government officials for raping 18 indigenous women three decades ago in a southern state.

The Madras High Court on Sept. 29 upheld the conviction of 217 government officials from police, forest, and revenue departments of Tamil Nadu state for committing the rapes during a search operation in a village in Dharmapuri district on June 20, 1992.

The district court had convicted 269 officials in the case way back in 2011 but they challenged the court order in the high court.

“We welcome the high court order as it has ushered in justice for the survivors,” said Father Nicholas Barla, secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India’s Commission for Scheduled Tribe or Indigenous people.

The officials reportedly suspected the residents of Vachathi village were part of the gang of sandalwood smuggler Koose Munisamy Veerappan, who was later killed by the police in 2004.

Justice P Velmurugan dismissed the appeals made by the officials challenging their conviction by a district court in Dharmapuri. “There are no merits in these appeals and the same are liable to be dismissed,” he said.

The court noted that officials “have committed the charged offenses” and the survivors’ accounts were “cogent and consistent."

The Church official said the court order has "asserted the right of the survivors to get justice.”

However, the courts need to speed up the justice process, he told UCA News on Oct. 2.

“I am concerned about the delay in awarding compensation to the victims and punishment to the convicts,” Barla said.

The top court in Tamil Nadu delivered its verdict after 12 years. But during the course of the appeal, some 50 convicts had died.

The court also directed the Tamil Nadu government to pay a compensation of one million Indian rupees (some US$12,000) each to the 18 victims of rape.

The priest said similar atrocities against indigenous people are reported from other parts of the country. The delay in awarding justice forces victims and their families to live in fear, he added.

“The government and the judiciary should take special initiatives to speed up trials. In this particular case, it took 12 years for the high court to pass an order on the appeal. If the convicts again appeal to the Supreme Court, it will prove a case of justice delayed is justice denied,” Barla said.

The court noted in its order that “unfortunately the then government failed to protect the tribal women and it only safeguarded the erred officials and also failed to find out the real sandalwood smugglers.”

“In order to safeguard the actual smugglers and the big-shots, the revenue officials, police officials and also the forest officials, with the help of the then government, played a big staged drama, in which the innocent tribal women got affected much and the pain and difficulties faced by them have to be compensated in terms of money and jobs,” it added.

Veerappan gained notoriety as a sandalwood smuggler who was also accused of poaching more than 2,000 elephants and smuggling ivory. He allegedly killed close to 184 people, about half of whom were police officers and forest officials. 

He lived hidden in the forests of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in southern India for over a quarter century.

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