Kochi: The High Court of Kerala on Tuesday turned down the bail pleas of brothers Anto Augustine, Josekutty Augustine, Roji Augustine, and their driver Vineesh in the sensational Muttil tree-felling case.
While rejecting the bail plea of the four accused, hailing from Vazhavatta in Wayanad, Justice Shircy V said that prima facie the accused in the case had attempted to cut and remove the 'royal' trees and misappropriate the valuable assets of the state with the connivance of some government officials.
(Royal trees are government property for which the land assignee has no rights. Royal varieties include teak, rosewood, ebony and sandal.)
The court was considering the bail plea in the case registered at the Meenangadi police station on a complaint that Rs.8 crore-worth valuable trees were illegally cut from a revenue land at Muttil village in Wayanad.
The court said that the real value of the loss occured due to destruction of the royal trees, which should have remained as government assets for long, could not be counted at this stage.
Prima facie it appeared that some government officials, who are supposed to work with absolute sincerity, joined hands with the accused to do this illegal act and caused loss to the tune of Rs 8 crore to the State, the court pointed out.
The court observed that taking into consideration the action of cutting down trees without permission, the seriousness of the offences committed, and the reasonable apprehension of tampering with the evidence, the court was denying bail to the accused.
The court found nothing wrong in the action of the Meppadi Forest Range Officer in denying permission for felling trees since the rules regarding conservation of trees mandated the prior permission of the government to cut trees from the revenue land.
The court reminded that there was provision for sale of trees in the Kerala Land Assignment Rules. Moreover, the Revenue Department's order allowing cutting of trees, except sandalwood trees, was withdrawn on February 2, 2021. In between, the High Court too stayed the order.
Earlier, the counsel for the accused argued that the revocation of the Revenue Department's order allowing cutting of trees had no legal sanctity since it had not been placed before the Assembly. The court said that this aspect could be questioned later through proper legal procedure.
Opposing the bail plea, senior public prosecutor Sreeja V submitted that the accused were highly influential and if they were released on bail, there was every possibility of their tampering with the evidence by using their political power and money. She pointed out that the probe by the special investigation team was going on in the case. Moreover, cases against the accused were registered in various police stations in Kerala and Karnataka.
The court observed that the accused, who have almost completed 60 days in custody, could approach the lower courts with the bail application if the prosecution failed to file the chargesheet in the case within the required time period.