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South Asia

Rock Quarry Owner Guilty After Exploiting 29 People in Bondage

CHENNAI, INDIA – On 31 May, a specialised court in southern India sentenced a powerful rock quarry owner to seven years in prison for exploiting disadvantaged families in bonded labour.

The Villupuram Special Court for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (India’s official roster of disadvantaged ethnic communities) found this man guilty of forcing 29 people to work as slaves and exploiting their tribal status. This is the first time IJM’s team in Chennai has witnessed a conviction under the SC/ST Act in a forced labour case – a major breakthrough.

Back in July 2010, IJM supported local law enforcement in a rescue operation at this rock quarry and brought 34 children, women and men to safety. The government granted 29 Release Certificates to break the labourers’ bonds to the owner and received rehabilitation funds to help restart their life in freedom.

A case was lodged against the abusive father and son who ran the quarry, but the father later passed away and only the son went on to trial.

IJM supported the 12-year legal case for many years, but eventually transitioned it fully to the ownership of public prosecutors. They faced a significant challenge with the defense lawyer – an extremely powerful and experienced local attorney – who frequently bombarded the survivors with questions to intimidate them.

But even against these tactics, the witnesses spoke the truth without fear, and the judge passed a verdict in their favour. IJM commended the prosecutors and judge for their sensitivity to the survivors and their commitment to the truth of the case.

As the offender begins his sentence, IJM hopes this conviction sends a powerful message to the community – and to the survivors who bravely raised their voices against him.

Selvam, who was trapped in the rock quarry for four years remembers:

“Before I was rescued, I feared everyone – not only the owner but also the government officials…I was full of fear when I entered the court for cross examination for the first time.”

But today, Selvam and the other survivors feel more confident as they see improvements in their justice system. He adds:

“Today, I feel that officials are more sensitive towards our needs, especially when they know that we are survivors of bonded labour.”

He and his wife, Kannamma, lead a peaceful life and are overjoyed that their days as victims of bonded labour are behind them.

Survivors Selvam and Kannamma (photographed in 2012) feel that the owner’s conviction has proven to them that justice is possible for their community.

Together, they work as daily-wage laborers and also make the best use of the government’s guaranteed-work program for impoverished communities. Selvam is also a leader in the survivor-run Released Bonded Laborers’ Association in Tiruvannamalai, and regularly supports his community when in need.

Selvam concludes,

“This conviction helped me realize that whoever commits a crime will face judgment and will be punished accordingly, regardless of how powerful they are.”

Read more about this conviction in The New Indian Express.

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