South Asia

India abuse: Scores guilty of Dalit rape and torture

The rape victims
Image caption All the victims have waived their right to anonymity to highlight their case

A court in India has convicted 269 police and forest officials of torturing and abusing more than 100 low-caste tribespeople in a 1992 raid.

Officials went to the village of Vachathi in southern Tamil Nadu state looking for smuggled sandalwood.

Over two days, 18 women were raped, at least 100 Dalits (former untouchables) abused and homes and cattle looted.

Seventeen officials were found guilty of rape and the rest were convicted of "atrocities against Dalits".

Nearly 100 of those convicted are policemen. Of the 269 convicted, 54 died during the course of the trial.

The court has sentenced all of those convicted: 12 men were given 10 years in prison and five were given seven years each. The remainder were given jail terms of between two and five years.

"This is an historic judgement. All the accused in this case are government officials. Till date I don't think so many government officials are convicted in a single case," said P Shanmugam, president of the Tamil Nadu Tribal People's Association.

'Repeatedly raped'

All of the low caste tribal rape victims have waived their right to anonymity. One of them, Gandhimathi, told the BBC that she would like to have seen life terms for those who committed the rapes.

She said that she and 17 other women were taken in a police truck to a lake embankment of and repeatedly raped.

"Afterwards they took us to a forest department and tortured us for the whole night. They took us in groups and photographed us in front of sandlewood and later produced [the pictures] before the magistrate, who remanded us for 45 days in jail.

"The officials warned us that if we made any complaints about the rapes to the magistrate our male relatives will be arrested under a draconian law. So we kept quiet."

Ms Gandhimathi said that after the crime, government officials killed all their livestock and took whatever they had.

"When we came back from jail, the whole village was deserted," she said.

"All our homes were destroyed. They killed our animals for food and dumped the leftovers in our wells. As a result all the water was contaminated."

Vachathi is close to Sathyamangalam forest which was the hunting ground of sandalwood smuggler and elephant poacher Veerappan.

Police and forest department officials raided the village on 20 June 1992, following reports that the villagers were involved in sandalwood smuggling, the BBC Tamil's TN Gopalan reports from Madras (Chennai).

The team was made up of 155 forest officials, 108 policemen and six officials of the revenue department.

India's Central Bureau of Investigation [CBI] says they ran amok, thrashing men, women and children, and demolishing huts.

Officials initially denied any wrongdoing and took a long time to register a case.

It was handed over to the CBI following campaigns by civil society activists and left-wing political parties, our correspondent says.