New Delhi – As a temporary relief for the tribal activist Soni Sori, who was languishing in a Raipur jail on charges of aiding Maoists, the Supreme Court on Tuesday accepted her plea and directed the Chhattisgarh government to shift her from Raipur jail to the Central Jail in Jagdalpur.
Soni Sori, a tribal teacher from Chhattisgarh, was jailed on charges of aiding Maoists in October 2011. She has been lodged at the Raipur Central Jail ever since.
Sori had sought a transfer from Raipur jail to Jagdalpur Central jail saying that she would feel more comfortable at Jagdalpur because of the presence of her relatives. The transfer request was also meant to speed up the trial process which was being delayed due to logistical problems.
“It is indeed a positive step. Sori is very happy because her relatives are there”, said Colin Gonsalves, Senior Advocate of Supreme Court who is also representing Soni Sori’s case, while speaking to Newzfirst.
“This is only one relief among the many that we are asking for. Many other issues like custodial torture etc., still need to be addressed in her case”, Supreme Court Advocate Brinda Grover told Newzfirst.
“This ruling will only ensure speedy trial because it will bring her closer to the trial court. The trial was getting delayed because of the difficulty in bringing her to the trial court each time. They do not have enough police escort to take her through such a long distance. It will also give the family easier access to Sori”, she added.
Responding to the Supreme Court order, the Chhattisgarh government told the court that it had no objection in moving her to another prison.
Soni Sori’s story
The tale of Soni Sori is also the tale of every tribal caught between a complex conflict between the Indian State and Maoists in Chhattisgarh. The case of Soni Sori scripts the prevalent paranoia in the name of security, which most often overrides sensitivity towards human dignity, rights and fair jurisprudence.
Soni Sori was a government-employed school teacher at an ashram for tribal children in Jabeli, Dantewada district. Ironically, she and her family managed to land on the wrong side of both the Maoists and the police.
Sori’s father, Madru Ram, was shot by Maoists on the night of 14 June 2011 when armed and uniformed Maoists stormed Madru Ram’s house in Dantewada’s Bade Bedma village and shot him.
Sori is also the aunt of Lingaram Kodopi, a tribal youth who was arrested from Dantewada on 9 September 2011 on charges of aiding Maoists financially. Kodopi had managed to empower himself by becoming a journalist and working to expose state atrocities against his community.
In an interview to a mainstream magazine prior to her arrest, Soni Sori had said that after the arrest of her nephew, she came all the way to Delhi to expose the truth.
“If laws are there to uphold the truth then I believe in them. I have done nothing wrong. I’m innocent. If today I don’t fight, many adivasis will have to suffer, they will get implicated in false cases, and people will continue to die. As an educated person I want to fight for the truth and I believe that I will get justice”, she had said.
But the cycle of events which unfolded ever since, have further faltered the notion and idea of justice.
Soni Sori’s arrest…
Soni Sori was arrested on 4th October 2011, on charges of acting as an agent between the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and the Essar Group, which has mining assets in Chhatisgarh. She was accused of carrying 1.5 million Indian rupees (US $30,000) from the mining company Essar to the insurgents as part of an extortion scheme, and had been wanted by police since the arrest of her nephew Lingaram Kodopi, who was also charged with participation. All three of the accused parties – Soni, CPI (M) and Essar – denied the charges.
After her arrest in Delhi, Soni Sori had pleaded before three judges of the Saket District Court when her transit remand was being heard, that were she to be handed over to the Chhattisgarh police she would definitely be tortured.
In response to petitions filed in Delhi courts, a judge ordered the Chhattisgarh police on 7 October 2011 to take all measures to ensure Soni Sori’s safety in transit. When Sori was produced before a court in Dantewada next day, which was a Saturday, the judge sent her to police custody, but ordered that she be medically examined prior to taking custody and before being produced in the court on Monday.
However, the police failed to produce Sori before the court on Monday claiming that she had suffered serious injuries by falling down in the prison bathroom and had to be immediately admitted in a hospital.
A video captured by a reporter while she was in the hospital, showed her writhing in severe pain on a hospital bed. A medical examination conducted by doctors in the hospital showed “contusions” on her head and “tenderness in her lumbar region” likely to have been caused by “a hard and blunt object”, but observed that there were no visual signs of “bony fractures”.
The medical report also noted black marks on both her middle fingers. Activists suspect that electric shocks administered by the police caused these marks.
The Chhattisgarh police took her to hospitals in Jagdalpur and Raipur later in the week. Remarkably, the medical reports from these hospitals failed to confirm even the observations reported by the doctors in Dantewada. It was in response to this sequence of events that activists and lawyers filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India demanding an independent medical examination, outside the control of Chhattisgarh police.
The Government of Chhattisgarh denied that Sori had been tortured, but on 20th October a bench of Supreme Court comprising of Justices Altamas Kabir, H.L. Dattu and C.K. Prasad granted the petition on grounds that “the injuries sustained by [Soni Sori] do not prima facie appear to be as simple as has been made out to be by the Chhattisgarh police.” The Court further directed the Chhattisgarh government to get Soni Sori treated in the NRS Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata for the injuries she sustained in police custody.
In a letter addressed to the Supreme Court, Sori described the torture she was subjected to by the Superintendent of Police Ankit Garg and demanded to know who is responsible for her condition.
“On the night of 8.10.2011, from 12 midnight to 2:30 am, SP Ankit Garg called me into a room in the police station, gave me electric shocks (current shock), took my clothes off and severely tortured me”, she wrote.
On 2 December, the report submitted by NRS Medical Hospital established that two stones were found in her private parts and rectum, clearly corroborating the veracity of Soni Sori’s charge.
Expressing anguish at the report, a bench of Justices Altamas Kabir and S.S. Nijjar of the Supreme Court sought Chhattisgarh government’s response. It also directed the State government to shift her to Raipur jail after senior counsel Colin Gonsalves told the court that her life was in danger at Jagdalpur prison.
However, since Sori wished to be transferred to Jagdalpur because of the presence of her relatives there, Sori had filed a plea in the Supreme Court asking for a transfer from Raipur jail to the Central jail in Jagdalpur.
“I had asked the SC to keep her in Raipur jail because we felt that there was a possibility of custodial torture at Jagdalpur. However, since Sori feels more comfortable there, we had filed a plea asking for a transfer”, Colin Gonsalves told Newzfirst.
The Chhattisgarh police have a long record of committing human rights abuses and atrocities outside and inside prisons, well documented by human rights organizations such as Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Sori continues to fight… Activists and Human Rights groups extend support…
On 11 October 2011, Sori began a hunger strike to protest her alleged framing in the payoff case. On 13 October, the National Human Rights Commission announced that it would investigate Sori’s allegations of torture.
In January 2012, Human Rights Watch called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to launch an independent probe, criticizing the failure of the Chhattisgarh government to begin an investigation and the lack of inquiries by the national government.
On Republic day 2012, Ankit Garg was awarded the Police Medal for Gallantry for his role in a controversial 2010 raid on Maoist rebels. Several human rights groups across India criticized the award citing Sori’s case.
“Is this an award for ruthlessly torturing people? Does the government approve of these methods?” they asked. A police spokesman responded by saying that the Sori case was a separate matter.
Amnesty International stated that it considered Sori a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned for her critique of human rights violations by both Maoist rebels and Indian state forces. On International Women’s Day 2012 (8 March), it launched a campaign calling for her unconditional release and an investigation into her torture allegations.
A group of 250 activists and intellectuals also wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 30 April, expressing concern over Sori’s “rapidly deteriorating” condition in prison and demanding that she receives immediate medical attention.
Sori was transferred to All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) on 10 May for treatment. She was found to be suffering from severe blisters in her genital area, and a government inquiry was instituted to learn why the hospital had initially refused her.
Sori’s case, a troubling flashpoint for our nation…
The case of Soni Sori is a troubling flash point for all the undemocratic events plaguing our nation today.
Today the cogwheels of Indian democracy are stuck in a quagmire of State sponsored violence. The ‘red corridor’, which the Government terms as the ‘greatest internal security threat’, suffers from violence of abject poverty, the violence of hunger, the multilayered violence of exclusion and inclusion, the violence of co-option, the violence of ‘rapacious’ development schemes which favor the rich corporations and systematically annihilate the poorest of poor.
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