A Chhattisgarh court on Friday acquitted 121 Adivasis who were arrested after 25 Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed in an ambush by Maoists in 2017 in Sukma district’s Burkapal area, the Hindustan Times reported.

The attack took place on April 24, 2017, when a team of around 100 soldiers belonging to the 74th battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force were guarding workers constructing a road in the Burkapal-Chintagufa area of the Bastar region.

The Adivasis were booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for allegedly assisting Maoists in the attack. One of the injured soldier had alleged that the insurgents had first sent villagers to trace the location of the security personnel, after which nearly 300 of them had attacked the Central Reserve Police Force party.

The attack against the central forces was one of the biggest since April 6, 2010, when 76 Central Reserve Police Force soldiers were killed in Dantewada district.

On Friday, Special Judge for the National Investigation Agency cases Deepak Kumar Deshlhre observed that the prosecution had failed to establish the involvement of the accused persons in the attack and their alleged links to Maoists, said defence lawyer Bela Bhatia, PTI reported.

The prosecution also failed to prove that any arms and ammunition were recovered from the accused Adivasis.

Bhatia said that most of the Adivasis, including one woman, were arrested in 2017 and some were held in 2018 and 2019.

They belong to Burkapal, Gondapalli, Chintagufa, Tadmetla, Koraigundum and Tonguda villages, the Hindustan Times reported.

Apart from the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Adivasis were booked under the Indian Penal Code Sections 147 (rioting), 148 (armed with deadly weapon), 149 (unlawful assembly), 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 307 (attempt to murder), 302 (punishment for murder), 396 (dacoity with murder), 397 (robbery with attempt to cause death or hurt).

They were also charged under Sections 3 (punishment for causing explosion likely to endanger life or property) and 5 (punishment for making or possessing explosives under suspicious circumstances) of the Explosive Substances Act, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act and Sections 25 (carrying prohibited arms) and 27 (punishment for using arms) of the Arms Act.

The trial in the case began in the National Investigation Agency court at Dantewada in August 2021.

“Five years of their lives were wasted behind bars and they were brought to court hearings only twice during the trial, when it is mandatory to produce the accused in person in every hearing,” Bhatia told the Hindustan Times. “Bail was denied in the designated NIA court at the district level as well as the High Court.”

She asked if the Chhattisgarh Police should not be charged for criminal conspiracy for turning “ordinary villagers into scapegoats in their fight against Maoists”.

The advocate also questioned if the state government will give compensation to them for the time they were incarcerated.

During the court proceedings, 25 prosecution witnesses were examined before finally acquitting all the 121 accused persons, said Bichem Pondi, a lawyer.

Hemala Ayutu, 30, who was released from Jaddalpur jail on Saturday after the court’s verdict, said that he was arrested without a reason, reported the Hindustan Times.

“I was picked up by police from Sukma,” he said. “I lost everything. I have done nothing but I was booked. I have no words to explain my pain in jail for five years.”

Inspector General of Police (Bastar range) Sundarraj P said that the next course of action in the case will be decided after examining the court’s verdict.

Of the total 121 Adivasis, seven were minors and were released earlier and one died during the trial, reported the Hindustan Times.