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Frustrated Orissa victims give up hopes for justice

Delays, threats and cost cause Christians to drop court cases

Frustrated Orissa victims give up hopes for justice

Angry Christians protest against the wave of violence against them in Orissa in 2008 (file photo: AFP/Raveendran)

Five years after a devastating wave of anti-Christian violence rocked the eastern state of Orissa, victims are beginning to give up the pursuit of justice through the legal system.

The seven-week rampage by Hindu extremists, centered around Orissa's Kandhamal district, took place in 2008. As many as 100 Christians were killed and many women were raped, including a Catholic nun. Hundreds of houses were burnt down, as were 95 churches and several orphanages. 

Since then, little has been done to fulfill assurances from both state and federal governments that the perpetrators would be caught and punished.  More than 3,200 complaints were filed but the police only registered 828 of them, finally referring 327 cases to two ‘fast track’ courts. These courts were closed down in March this year with cases still unheard.

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From the victims’ point of view, the conviction rate has also been disappointing. A total of 86 cases have ended in a guilty verdict, but most have resulted only in minor jail terms. 

"The courts also acquitted 1,597 suspects and police failed to arrest thousands, helping them to escape trial," said Father Ajay Kumar Singh, a rights activist who works on the victims' behalf.   

As well as the lengthy delays, the threat of hostility to witnesses has been cited as a prime reason for dropping cases.

"I want to live, so I dropped it," Father Edward Sequeira told ucanews.com. He avoided death when his center in Khutpali village was burnt down in the riots, but was badly beaten.  A woman who cared for children at the hostel attached to his center was raped and burnt alive.  Her murder case has also been abandoned.

Father Thomas Chellan was beaten and paraded half naked in the street during the violence. He is another priest who has dropped his case, but for different reasons.

"He has no interest in the case because he believes the real culprits are not the villagers who did it but the fanatics who engineered it," said Father Dibakar Parichha, who leads the team of advocates dealing with the cases.

Perhaps the main reason for abandoning cases is simply the cost. Officials at Cuttuck-Bhubaneswar archdiocese, which covers the affected area, point out that the legal process entails financial and human resources which few people have. Prosecuting a murder case costs up to $US 30,000, including lawyers’ fees and witness counseling. If a case goes to India's Supreme Court, a top lawyer may charge $US 20,000 for just one appearance.

"We also need to make extra arrangements for the support and protection of witnesses until the cases end, which may be years and will cost us millions of rupees," Fr Parichha said. "We don't have that kind of money.”

The high profile case of the nun who was raped has been deadlocked in the Supreme Court for the past year.

“How long should I wait, and for what?" the nun asked. "I cannot have my normal life. I've been asked to take a false identity and I cannot introduce myself to anyone with my real name. I just want it to end, somehow," she said.

"Technically, all cases of murder and other violations are government cases, and government lawyers are supposed to appear for the victims. But in our lax system, the case will move strongly only if we appoint private lawyers," said Fr Ajay Kumar Singh.

"You can imagine, if this is the situation for senior priests and high profile cases, what will be the state of poor and uneducated people?" he added.

"It is a sad situation. Many may never get justice." 

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