Over a month after the Theni forest fires that claimed the lives of 23 trekkers in the Kurangani hills, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court granted anticipatory bail to Peter Van Geit of the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC).
Thirty nine trekkers, who were trapped in the fire on March 11, came in two groups. While Tour De India Holidays, led by Prabhu, organised a trek for 12 people from Erode, the CTC had taken 27 persons on the two-day trek at Kurangani forest. Both organisers of the trek conducted by the Chennai Trekking Club, Nisha and Dhivya, were killed in the fires.
According to the Forest Department, Arun Prabhakar and Vibin Dhamodharan were â€śtaken as supportersâ€ť for the trek. They were trained in rescue operations and survival skills, said the petitions. They too had died in the fires.
Prabhu of Tour De India Holidays was arrested on March 14, three days after the tragedy.
There were multiple demands for arresting Peter too, but the anticipatory bail comes as a big relief for him.
While Peter Van Geit has claimed in his petition that he had knowledge of the trek, he denied having organised it.
Peter a scapegoat?
Madras High Court Justice GR Swaminathan granted bail upon the condition that Peter not leave the country until the present case against him is disposed.
Denying being the founder of the CTC, the petition states that he was a trustee of the voluntary organisation with free membership. The petition clarifies that CTC is a nonprofit entity registered as a trust under a trust deed by Prabhakar Meyappan.
Peterâ€™s counsel requested that he be given anticipatory bail since â€śthere was a chance for him to be treated badly in the event of his arrest.â€ť The counsel also said that the police had made Peter the scapegoat based on misinformation.
The petition states, "The other team from Chennai was actually organised as Women's Day Special Trek by Ms Divya Muthukumar and Ms Nisha Tamiloli jointly, who are experienced trekkers."
"The participants are carefully selected by the organisers themselves based on their fitness levels to take up the strenuous trekking expeditions. Even in the format that is circulated among the volunteers requiring them to join in the trekking expedition it is clearly mentioned that such expeditions involve inherent risks of several nature, including death, and CTC and its organisers are not responsible for any accidents or injuries during the event or for any loss or damage to their personal property," the petition states.
In a response soon after the tragedy, the CTC came out with an official response to the mounting allegations against them, stating that necessary permissions had been obtained for the trek. They also claimed that the trekking route from Kurangani to Kollukumalai on top was a regular for both local villagers and trekkers.
The Bodi Town police had filed an FIR against Peter Van Geit on March 15, charging him with Section 174 Cr Pc C(accidental fire), 336(Act endangering life or personal safety of others), 337(Causing hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others), 338(Causing grievous hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others), 304(2) IPC(culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and 21 D of the Tamil Nadu Forest Act, 1882(Penalties for trespass or damage in reserved forests and acts prohibited in such forests).