The Gauhati High Court on Thursday acquitted all six accused in the 2004 Dhemaji bomb blast case in which 18 people, including 13 school children, were killed on Independence Day.
A division bench of justices Michael Zothankhuma and Mridul Kumar overturned a 2019 order of the Dhemaji district and sessions court, which had sentenced four persons to life imprisonment and two others to four years in jail, citing lack of sufficient evidence.
Delivering the verdict, the court observed that "the circumstantial evidence does not form an unbroken chain that leads to the possible inference that the appellants are guilty of crime''.
There is no evidence at all except for the statements recorded under section 164 of the CrPC, which are not corroborated with proof, it said.
"Further, the judicial officer recording the evidence has not given reason for believing that the same was given voluntarily as per provisions of law," it added.
The prosecution has failed to establish the involvement of the accused in the case, the court said.
Find no sufficient evidence to uphold the conviction, all the accused persons are acquitted, it said.
The high court gave the verdict after concluding the hearing on the appeals filed by the six accused on July 24.
While Dipanjali Buragohain, Muhi Handique, Jatin Dubori, and Leela Gogoi were sentenced to life imprisonment by the district court, Prashanta Bhuyan and Hemen Gogoi were sentenced to four years in jail by the district court.
They were convicted under various sections of the IPC, including 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 302 (murder), besides the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA and the Explosive Substances Act.
The explosion had taken place at the Dhemaji College ground during Independence Day celebrations.
The ULFA, which called for a boycott of the celebrations, had claimed responsibility for the blast. Besides those killed, around 45 people were injured in the explosion.
The two accused were sentenced to four years in jail by the district court as incriminating objects were recovered from their houses, said petitioners' advocate Abhijit Khanikar.
"The incriminating materials seized were a 'gamosa' (towel) and a toothpaste from Hemen's house. It could not be established that he had any connection with the outfit," Khanikar said.
Following the blast, 14 people were named as accused in the case, but the district court had convicted six and acquitted seven, while one was absconding.
A disappointed Tarulata Saikia, the mother of 14-year-old Girin Saikia who lost his life in the blast, said even as the ULFA admitted that it was behind the blast, delay in filing of the charge sheet by the police "denied us justice''.
She demanded a CBI inquiry into the incident. "We cannot comment on the high court's judgment but we were hoping that the guilty will be punished."
Girin, a class 9 student of the Dhemaji Town Model High School, was representing his school at the Independence Day parade on the college grounds.
Nitya Gogoi, the father of 10-year-old Pradipta Gogoi who also lost his life, said that though they respect the high court, they are very sad after the order.
"The lacunae was in the police investigation as it took ten years to file the charge sheet. The lower court had convicted six persons but it was only due to weak investigation that the accused will go free," he alleged.
The bomb was planted near the college gate and triggered by a remote-controlled device, according to police.
A day after the blast, ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, who is now a part of the pro-talk faction, had said in a statement that security forces had used school children as shields to defy the outfit's boycott call.
In 2009, ULFA's self-styled 'Commander-in-Chief' Paresh Barua sought a public apology for the blast.
The outfit's pro-talk faction held a round of negotiations with the Centre last week.