BHOPAL: In a landmark decision, a special court in Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar district sentenced 13 poachers affiliated with an international syndicate to life in prison for poaching and smuggling endangered pangolins and turtles.
They were sentenced to 7 years in prison and fines ranging from Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000 each.
Thirty-seven people have been charged in this case, with eleven of them hailing from Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Madagascar. Attempts are being made through diplomatic channels to apprehend foreign nationals.
The sentence was delivered by the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM). On May 5, 2017, the Madhya Pradesh Special Task Force Wildlife (also known as the State Tiger Strike Force) registered a case in Sagar to investigate confirmed inputs on pangolin scale poaching and smuggling, as well as various turtle species, including one endemic to the Ganga basin, the Red crown roofed turtle (Batagur Kachuga).
The MPSTF (wildlife), led by ACF Ritesh Sirothia, conducted extensive investigations and arrested 37 people involved in the poaching syndicate under various sections of the Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972. Sentences for crimes involving prohibited turtle species include a minimum of three years in prison and a maximum of seven years in prison, as well as a minimum fine of ten thousand rupees.
In total, 16 people were apprehended in Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal. The remaining 21 are evading capture. Seven people have been imprisoned in the last three years. Their bail applications are consistently denied by a variety of courts, ranging from district courts to high courts to the Supreme Court. Ten of the 21 absconding suspects are Indian citizens, while the other eleven are foreign nationals.
All 21 absconders have already been served with arrest warrants by the Trial Court. In a bail case, the Supreme Court directed the trial court to expedite the trial, and CJM Sagar began hearing the case on a daily basis. The High Court kept an eye on the trial’s progress.
Sirothia and his team seized a Mercedes Benz from one of the accused, which had been used for the illegal transport of turtles from Gwalior Agra to Chennai.
Twelve of the 16 arrested suspects are repeat offenders. Some of them have multiple criminal records for involvement in similar crimes. This was the first time the forest department issued a Lookout Circular (LOC) to the accused.
Manni Murugushan, the syndicate’s kingpin, had previously been apprehended by Thailand police at Swarnabhumi Airport in August 2012, along with prohibited species of turtles. He failed to appear in court after receiving bail from the Thai Court, and the Thai Court later issued an arrest warrant for him.
Interpol issued a Red Corner Notice (RCN) against him due to his fugitive status in Thailand. His extradition request is currently with the Court of Extradition Magistrate, who was recently appointed by the MEA.
STF has appointed special public prosecutors to stake a strong claim in trial court. Senior Advocates were used by STF in petitions filed before the Supreme Court and High Court.
Interpol commended the STF for their thorough investigation and arrest of key players in the Turtle case. During the investigation into the illegal trade of turtles by members of the syndicate, the STF produced bank statements and conducted financial investigations that were crucial during the trial. With the assistance of the Intelligence Bureau in New Delhi, critical information was retrieved and presented in court as evidence.
MPSTF examined data collected from alleged syndicate members’ Facebook, Gmail, and Yahoo accounts, as well as call history records, using a smart and scientific investigation method.
Poachers near the Ganga and Chambal rivers were apprehended first, followed by middlemen near large towns such as Gwalior, Agra, and Kanpur, large traders in Kolkata and Chennai, and finally those operating across international borders were apprehended by STF. The STF disrupted the supply chain by arresting Poachers, local traders, couriers, big traders, and international smugglers.
STF shared criminal dossiers with respective law enforcement agencies and requested INTERPOL assistance in apprehending and arresting wanted foreign nationals.
Previously, in 2017, the CJM court in Madhya Pradesh’s Hoshangabad district sentenced five poachers to seven years in prison each, setting an example of the quickest conviction in a tiger poaching case.
The sentence was handed down by the CJM based on scientific evidence gathered by the STF forest department’s wildlife wing, led by Ritesh Sirothia. Convicts have also been fined Rs 1 lakh each, failing which they will spend more time in jail. This is said to be the first conviction by a court specifically designated for STF (wildlife) cases, as well as the most severe penalty in terms of both punishment and fine. On April 4, 2017, a tiger was shot and injured in Betul’s Rathipur village.