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India

Top court bails out Christian jailed for murdering Hindu swami

Six others 'framed' over guru's death need to also be released, Christians leaders say

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Top court bails out Christian jailed for murdering Hindu swami

A file photo of Gornath Chalenseth, one of seven men jailed for murdering a Hindu guru in eastern India. Local Christians say the men were framed over the murder. (Photo provided by Anto Akkara)

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India’s Supreme Court has bailed one of seven Christians jailed for murdering a Hindu guru in Kandhamal district in eastern India in a case which triggered anti-Christian riots 10 years ago.

The top court bailed out Gornath Chalenseth from Phulbani jail in Odisha state on May 9.

Considering that the accused “had already undergone 10 years of his sentence and taking an overall view of the matter,” the Supreme Court said that Chalenseth should be released on bail.

The top court also set aside a December order of the Odisha state high court that denied them bail.

A district court convicted the seven for the murder of Hindu spiritual leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his associates who were shot dead on Aug. 23, 2008.

The seven men’s appeal against the conviction has been pending in Odisha High Court for more than five years. The Indian judicial system allows to move for bail while an appeal is pending.

However, the state court also denied them bail twice, the latest being in last December, forcing them to move Supreme Court. Rights activists say the state court’s denial has been politically influenced.

Christian leaders lauded the Supreme Court bail decision as a step forward in releasing all the Christians, who they say were framed over a murder case connected with a 2008 riot engineered by Hindu groups in Kandhamal.

The bail application was filed by a legal team led by Christian advocacy forum Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is based in New Delhi.

“It is a huge victory for these hapless men who don’t have the resources or knowledge to fight for their freedom in India’s complicated judicial system,” said Father Dibakar Parichha, a Catholic priest and lawyer who has been assisting lawyers for the jailed men.

Father Parichha expressed hope that the other six men would likewise be released. “We are working toward this happening,” he said.

A.C. Michael, a Christian leader and ADF official, said the Supreme Court judge observed that the state High Court “does not seem to be taking up the appeal anytime soon.”

Michael, a former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, said “although it is quite late, justice is still prevailing.”

Travesty of justice

Anto Akkara, a journalist-turned-activist who has been campaigning for the release of the men, told ucanews.com that their arrest and conviction was a “subversion of the justice system” in the country.

The seven men — six of whom are illiterate — were arrested and jailed several months after Saraswati and his four associates were killed. They were convicted in the district court in 2013 and handed life in prison.

“The murder was touted as a Christian conspiracy and the innocent villagers were arrested,” Anto said.

Hindu extremists blamed Christians for the murders even though Maoists at that time claimed responsibility for the deaths.

Anti-Christian violence began three days after Saraswati’s murder and lasted for more than a month. Nearly 100 Christians were killed, and some 300 churches and 6,000 Christian houses were vandalized or put to the torch, rendering 56,000 homeless.

Father Parichha said several people accused of rioting and murder were acquitted due to “sloppy police investigations” and “a lack of evidence and witnesses.”

“Their appeals against the conviction have been dragging on in the Odisha High Court for over five years,” he said.

The six men still in jail are Bhaskar Sunamajhi, Bijay Sanseth, Buddhadev Nayak, Durjo Sunamajhi, Munda Badamajhi and Sanatan Badamajhi.

Father Kulakanta Dandasena from Kandhamal, who has regularly visited the men and their families, told ucanews.com that “these people have been suffering for years for no fault of theirs.”

“We can see the pain they go through by just being with them,” he said.

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