The release of all the 'Kandhamal seven' has been hailed as a victory for poor and downtrodden people. (Photo supplied)
Church leaders and activists in India have praised India’s Supreme Court for finally granting bail to five Christians kept in jail for more than a decade for allegedly killing a Hindu spiritual guru in the eastern state of Odisha.
The court issued its landmark decision on Nov. 26, freeing the five men who were charged with murder in 2008 and had been in Phulbani district jail ever since. The two other male defendants secured bail at the beginning of the year.
“As we say and believe in Satyameva Jayate, truth alone triumphs,” said Father Dibakar Parichha, a lawyer priest who, along with legal groups across India, has been fighting on behalf the accused down the years.
‘Our joy and happiness doubled today,” he added. “We are celebrating Constitution Day in our country and what else could we have asked more than this when the poor and innocent Christians finally got justice.
“Although the journey was not easy, we had full faith in the judiciary that one day we would see justice done because the opposition party was very strong and had the back-up of the entire government department.
“It is a victory for poor and downtrodden people who don’t even have society’s support to raise their voices.”
Father Parichha, a Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocesan official, said the Church was grateful for the latest development.
“There are many people who are behind this victory. I’m thankful to all who have given me and our team the support we were needed — financially, mentally, morally and physically even risking their lives,” he said.
However, he regretted that in hundreds of other cases relating to the Kandhamal riots, criminals were acquitted due to sloppy police work, resulting in a lack of evidence and witnesses.
Police failed to stop rioters
In several cases, police were actually present when attacks were happening but were under instructions not to act. Federal paramilitary forces only arrived in the area after 41 days of unabated riots despite several appeals from church officials, he said.
Even in those cases which did reach the courts, senior government leaders who were supposed to speak for the victims failed to turn up and judges were frequently transferred. Witnesses were intimidated by the accused and their supporters, making them disappear or turning them into hostile witnesses during trials, the priest said.
The seven Christians, including a mentally disabled boy, were sentenced to life imprisonment by a third judge in 2013 after the previous two judges were suddenly transferred. They are Bhaskar Sunamajhi, Buddhadev Nayak, Durjo Sunamajhi, Munda Badamajhi, Sanatan Badamajhi, plus Gornath Chalanseth and Bijay Sanseth, who were freed earlier.
They have throughout pleaded their innocence but until now their bail applications were repeatedly rejected by Odisha High Court. Their appeals against conviction by subversion of the judicial system have now dragged on for more than five years in Odisha High Court.
The Kandhamal district of Odisha had been experiencing sectarian tension for decades but it wasn’t until Christmas 2007 that it first witnessed organized violence.
Then, some of the worst anti-Christian riots in Indian history stemmed from the events of Aug. 23, 2008, when, as Hindus celebrated Janmashtami or the birth of Hindu lord Krishna, their prominent leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was shot dead.
Hindu radicals rounded on Christian targets after dubbing the murder a Christian conspiracy. The unabated violence that continued for seven weeks killed some 100 people, rendered 56,000 homeless and destroyed 6,000 houses and 300 churches.
Four Christians, including an illiterate 13-year-old boy, were picked up by Hindu activists, beaten and dumped in police stations. Police would not publicize their names but Praveen Togadia, the leader of the right-wing Hindu militant organization Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), did so and accused them of killing the Swami.
Police released the group after failing to make any charges during their 40-day detention. Then investigators arrested seven Christians (all non-Catholics) including a mentally challenged man from the remote Kotagarh area. On the day the charge sheet was filed at court, Togadia even demanded that “the pope should apologize to Hindus.”
Pushpanjali Panda (left) and Linguri Pradhan, two victims of the 2008 anti-Christian riots. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/ucanews)
Prosecutors challenged by judge
During a trial lasting all of four years, hardly any worthwhile evidence was brought before the two judges.
Biranchi N. Mishra, the judge who presided over the final two years of the trial, was suddenly transferred in 2013 before he was able to deliver his verdict.
He had repeatedly challenged prosecutors over why people who appeared to be innocent were in detention and even recorded that the conduct of one investigating officer, Santosh Kumar Patnaik, was “deplorable.”
The shocking verdict convicting the seven Christians and sentencing them to life imprisonment was delivered abruptly by a newly appointed third judge in October 2013.
Surprisingly, two years later, the same police officers who had ensured the conviction of the innocent Christians told Justice Naidu’s Commission of Inquiry that the much trumpeted “Christian conspiracy” theory was baseless.
Human rights activists, social workers, journalists and church leaders have contested the convictions of the Christians, claiming it was based on a conspiracy theory which lacked evidence.
Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, whose archdiocese covers the riot-hit Kandhamal area, told ucanews: “We are indeed happy and rejoicing this historic day, but at the same time I feel shame that we could not able to get justice for our fellow brethren who have been innocent all along.
“Whenever I meet with their family members back in their village — I was there again only last week — their wives and children always ask me when justice will be done. I have always assured them that one day we will get justice.
“While visiting their families, I could feel their pain and anguish, but I was helpless, other than trying to give them hope, but today we all are happy that the Almighty has listened to our prayer and fulfilled it.”
A.C. Michael, a former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, whose organization Alliance Defending Freedom has battled for the defendants down the years, also had mixed feelings about the belated granting of bail.
“It is really sad that today we Christians are feeling happy for obtaining bail for seven innocents who were convicted without any proper trial on false allegations of killing Swamy Lakshmananda,” he said.
“These seven innocents have spent 10 priceless years of their lives away from their spouses and children. Also, think of the children who had to face day-to-day harassment.”
Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), said: “The trial court convicted the seven accused and sentenced them to life imprisonment on the basis of a fabricated Christian conspiracy theory despite hardly any credible evidence brought before the court.”
The GCIC has also worked tirelessly for the accused from the very beginning. It has staged protests with many victims, including several widows of those killed, in front of parliament in New Delhi and in other cities so that people throughout India “could grasp the extent of this tragedy,” said George.