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Was Veerappan paid Rs 5 million before he agreed to surrender?

N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras

There is speculation that a Bangalore-based businessman arranged for Rs 5 million to be paid to sandalwood smuggler Veerappan to release the eight Karnataka forest officials he has held as hostages since July 12. Though the source of the funds is not clearly known, informed sources claim that money did change hands before Veerappan offered to surrender earlier this week.

"Probe how his offer -- made through two audio cassettes -- reached the powers-that-be and you will know a lot," says a source close to one of those involved in the negotiations. "The money was paid, and Veerappan offered to surrender." He indicates that Veerappan needed the money to support the families of his gang members after they surrendered.

Some other sources wonder why Veerappan needed the money overnight when he was rumoured to be flush with funds. "Veerappan was believed to have been in possession of large funds, collected either as ransom from local stone quarry owners and farmers, or made through smuggling ivory and sandalwood," says one source. "There is also a recorded message from Veerappan, addressed to a Karnataka police officer a couple of years back offering Rs 250 million and more if the latter could arrange an amnesty for him. Earlier, he is said to have claimed that he could contest elections and become a minister on the strength of the money at his disposal. It just doesn't tally."

Veerappan is believed to have collected a substantial ransom for the release of four Tamil Nadu officials in 1994. The figure mentioned then was Rs 1 million. Though the Jayalalitha-led state government of the day claimed no money changed hands and the hostages were freed by a police team -- the claim was almost simultaneously denied by one of the kidnapped.

The sources, however, agree that Veerappan may be scared of his captors seizing the money reportedly in his possession and torturing him to reveal where it has been hidden. "There are others, particularly politicians from both states, who might want him silenced so that their connections with him are not revealed. His fears are genuine and that is why he has been demanding a public surrender and an amnesty from the President of India."

In this context, some demoralised police officers from both states, piqued at the celebrity status conferred on the killer by the two governments, doubt whether the two chief ministers could keep their current promises to Veerappan. "They have promised a short term in jail and a speedy trial, implying to him that he may, after all, be a free bird after a while," says a former police officer in Tamil Nadu. "But this is not possible in ordinary circumstances."

As he points out, Veerappan has been charged with killing 130 people, many of them police and forest officers from the two states. "Even if there is a lack of evidence in some cases, Veerappan himself has gone on record ininterviews and videotapes that he has killed the victims. What could be done in these cases, unless the prosecution does not press the charge, if only to save Veerappan's skin?" asks the retired police officer.

He sees one way out, and that is to serve the short-term. "Maybe, given the enormity of the investigation involved, given the various charges of killings, poaching and violation of laws against Veerappan's gang, the prosecution may not be able to file the chargesheet within six months of his arrest as stipulated in the Criminal Procedure Code. And that may be a loophole that Veerappan's lawyers may use to demand bail."

Even then, says this official, the President may not be inclined to pardoning Veerappan or cutting short his sentence, as is generally believed now. "He is a dangerous criminal in the eyes of the law. There is no real Robin Hood image around him, or a community history of crime, as was the case with the Chambal marauders. To grant him a pardon when he has gone on record as having killed policemen and forest officials in cold blood, would set an unhealthy precedent."

Sources also claim that Karnataka Chief Minister J H Patel has kept a low profile because of the complexity of the issues involved. Asks one source, "What can Patel or his government do if someone in Karnataka moves the courts to try Veerappan in that state for offences committed there? The Karnataka government has agreed not to press for Veerappan's trial or imprisonment in the state, but in these days of judicial activism, anything is possible after the eight hostages are released."


Gopal leaves on third peace mission to Veerappan
Karnataka, Tamil Nadu accept Veerappan's offer of surrender
'If the police kills two of his men, Veerappan kills four policemen'
'They want to kill me. What is wrong in me killing someone who is trying to kill me?'
Veerappan's ransom demand turned down

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