Tura, Meghalaya: Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Meghalaya vice-president Bernard Marak, a former militant turned politician, was granted conditional bail by the Meghalaya High Court Friday in two of four cases against him — for running a “brothel” and for storing explosives.
The HC in the order said there was “insufficient evidence to link the accused person to the alleged offence” in the “brothel” case. And in the case filed after police allegedly recovered explosives from Marak’s farmhouse, the court deemed there were “no materials to show the accused person has entered into a criminal conspiracy with the other accused persons”.
On 22 July, the Meghalaya Police had raided Marak’s farmhouse, ‘Rimpu Bagan’, located a few kilometers from Tura, headquarters of the West Garo Hills district.
In a press statement, the Tura police said they had found “young boys and girls openly drinking on the premises” and that some had been “without clothes”.
During the raid, the police said they also also found five children locked “inside [a] dingy cabin-like unhygienic room”. The police described the farmhouse as a “brothel” and booked Marak under several sections of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act.
Marak was arrested on 26 July.
Six days after the initial raid, on 28 July, the Meghalaya Police and the District Child Protection Unit made another visit to the farmhouse and found several explosives and other weapons.
Marak, who is also a member of the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council (GHADC), was booked under the Explosive Substances Act, 1908.
The Meghalaya High Court, noting insufficient evidence in both cases, granted him conditional bail.
State BJP president Ernest Mawrie has called Marak’s arrest a “political vendetta” and the BJP vice-president’s lawyer, senior advocate Angshuman Bora, called all four cases “fabricated”.
The BJP has also projected Marak (provided he is exonerated) as the party’s candidate in South Tura — Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma’s constituency — for the 2023 assembly polls.
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Marak’s Rimpu Bagan farmhouse is located at the end of a broken mud path, off the main road, inside a thick jungle in the Edenbari area, about 8 kilometres from Tura. The name comes from Marak’s own nickname ‘Rimpu’.
The red structure is a run-down building and, at first look, seems to be single-storeyed. A walk around it, however, reveals a three-storeyed structure built on a step cut out of a hill.
According to a report, the farmhouse had once been a designated camp of the ANVC-B, a faction of the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) — a militant group that had been fighting to carve out a separate state for Garos called “Achik Land”.
Marak had served as the chairman of the ANVC-B, a splinter faction formed in 2012 that was against engaging in peace talks with the government. Two years later, however, both the ANVC and the ANVC-B laid down arms. Following this, Marak joined the BJP in 2014.
According to the police’s press release, the farmhouse had been on their radar following an earlier case in February wherein a minor girl had complained of being sexually assaulted multiple times on the premises of Rimpu Bagan.
Vivekanand Singh Rathore, superintendent of police (SP) of the West Garo Hills, told ThePrint that two similar cases had also taken place last year, which similarly implicated Marak.
But it wasn’t till July this year that the police took any action.
“We had to do our homework and didn’t move in before, because we knew that if we couldn’t retrieve evidence, it would be an issue. Marak is the vice-president of the Meghalaya BJP and a member of the district council,” said Rathore.
Soon after the raid, Marak “fled” to Delhi via Guwahati. He was later apprehended in Hapur, Uttar Pradesh on 26 July, and brought back to Tura.
ThePrint reached Marak’s wife, L.K. Gracy, a professor at the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), but she denied requests for an interview.
‘Nothing to link accused person to alleged offense’
According to the police, a total of 68 people were detained in the raid on 22 July and 36 vehicles, 47 mobile phones, nearly 170 litres of liquor, and 500 condoms were seized from Rimpu Bagan.
“One could book a room for an amount as nominal as Rs 50 and [there is] a caretaker who would take them to the room…the hotel didn’t have any permissions, including for liquor,” said SP Rathore.
A police officer from Tura told ThePrint that the 68 detained included women who were found to be HIV-positive and pregnant.
Marak was booked under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act’s sections 3 (for keeping a brothel or allowing premises to be used as a brothel), 4 (for living on the earnings of prostitution), 5 (procuring or inducing a person for the purpose of prostitution), 6 (detaining a person in premises where prostitution is carried on) and 7 (prostitution in or in the vicinity of public places).
The HC, while granting bail, however, observed, “From the statement of the witnesses and the materials on record, there is insufficient evidence to link the accused person to the alleged offence in as much as there is no initial evidence that the place of occurrence has been used as a brothel.”
Marak, the order said, had stated that he had bought the property in 2003 and entrusted the building to the caretaker. He had last visited the property two months ago “and at that point of time he was not aware of any illegal activities alleged to have been committed”.
The court added that even if visitors had partaken in sexual activities, it had presumably happened between consenting adults.
ThePrint reached investigating officer Mamata Hajong, who refused to comment on the case.
Additionally, complaints about “arbitrary arrests” were filed with the Meghalaya Human Rights Commission by those who had been detained during the raids.
The commission, in an order ThePrint has accessed, said that one Dominchi Marak from Tura “was asked by the investigating officer as to whether she was there to sell herself.” In her complaint, the 22-year-old make-up artist from Tura said she and her male friend had gone to spend time at the farmhouse as it was “a popular hang-out for young people”.
Locals in Tura said such farmhouses, frequented by youths, were common in the Garo Hills area.
A second complaint was filed by the father of Silchinora G. Sangma/ Momin (as the name appears in the complaint), who had been detained for one month and 13 days after the raid.
The commission’s order also stated that Momin, who has a speech impediment and is disabled, had been found “with her boyfriend, whom she has been with for around 10 years”.
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According to the police, on 28 July, six days after the initial raid, they came across several explosives and weapons in the farmhouse.
Rathore said the two teams who had been sent on 22 and 23 July hadn’t initially found the explosives. “We later got a request to retrieve the clothes and books of the children being kept there. When the team went, they saw a small door to a room, which hadn’t been searched,” he said.
In this room, 35 gelatin sticks, 100 detonators, four crossbows and 15 arrows were found, he said.
Following this, Marak was booked under section 4 of the Explosive Substance Act (attempt to cause an explosion, or for making or keeping explosives with intent to endanger life or property) and sections 120 (concealing design to commit offence), 120B (criminal conspiracy), 121 (waging war), 121A (conspiracy to commit offences) and 109 (abetment) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and was arrested again from the district jail in August.
When asked what the weapons were being used for, the SP said the matter is still being investigated.
The court Friday, however, found insufficient evidence of a “criminal conspiracy” in the case, saying, “The plausible explanation that the same (explosives) may be planted cannot be ruled out at this juncture without any concrete evidence (sic).”
Additionally, it said, “the concerned caretaker has not yet been apprehended goes to show that the version of the accused person as regard knowledge cannot be believed or disbelieved (sic).”
Questions were also raised about the time gap after which the explosives were found. Wilver Greham M. Danggo, general secretary of the BJP’s West Garo Hills unit, said, “How is it that they found the explosives in the children’s room so long after [the initial raid]. Marak was being arrested from UP at the time.”
PThen, in August, the Meghalaya police booked the BJP leader in two other separate cases.
On 23 August, a press statement issued by the Meghalaya Police said that Marak was also operating an organisation — the ‘Meghalaya Chamber of Commerce’ (MCC) — which had “been found to be collecting huge amounts of money from the shopkeepers in the name of ‘membership fee’ and ‘monthly renewal fee’”.
Marak was arrested for a third time under several sections of the IPC, including 120B (criminal conspiracy), 384 (extortion), and 417 (punishment for cheating).
Marak’s lawyer, senior advocate Angshuman Bora, however, told ThePrint, “He isn’t a member of the MCC as claimed. The body had passed a resolution during which he was invited and simply made an advisor.”
On 12 September, Marak was arrested in a fourth case, under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, and sent to 10 days in judicial custody by the chief judicial magistrate of Tura. Rathore told ThePrint that the medical examination of one of the five children had suggested sexual assault.
Marak was booked under sections 5 and 6 of the POCSO Act, which relate to aggravated penetrative sexual assault on a child.
When asked if the victim had divulged any details of the perpetrator, Rathore said the child had not done so.
“Why was this case not mentioned as a part of the same incident (the raid),” asked advocate Bora, who claimed that all the four cases had been fabricated.
The court in its order on the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) case had said, “The allegation that a minor girl was found to be sexually assaulted at the time of the raid is not well founded as no specific evidence linking the accused person to that case has been made out from the case diary.”
Bora said a petition had been submitted against the POCSO case.
‘BJP’s symbol in the Garo Hills’
BJP members from the West Garo Hills ThePrint met claimed the cases were just a “political vendetta” against Marak since he had spoken about the Conrad Sangma-led government’s alleged corruption.
Tikaram Lama, the BJP’s North Tura mandal president, said, “He [Bernard Marak] was growing in popularity. Before 2015, nobody knew of the BJP here. He became the BJP’s symbol in the Garo Hills.”
The police officer quoted above, however, disagreed, saying that the leader’s pocket of supporters were “surrendered ex-militants” who, like him, had become a part of the BJP.
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)
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