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August 24 1988

A Catholic priest has appealed against a death sentence passed on him by a south Indian court for his alleged involvement in the murder of a woman two years ago.

The court case and verdict, announced July 22, have received wide publicity in India´s national press, much to the embarrassment of the Church.

According to Father Saturnino Dias, spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of India, the case and the verdict have been very damaging to the Church´s image in the country. "It shows a human side of the Church," he said.

Father Antony Lazar, 49, and eight others were convicted of murdering a 28-year-old Catholic nurse, Marykutty ("little Mary"), who allegedly had illicit relations with the priest of Punalur diocese in south India´s Kerala state.

While the district court in Quilon, a Kerala trading town on the Malabar coast, decided on the maximum punishment for the priest and one other man, the seven others received prison sentences ranging from five to 14 years.

The judge explained that Father Lazar, despite his respectable position in society, had to be given the severest possible punishment under India´s penal code because he had plotted the crime against a helpless woman.

The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty should be given only in "the rarest of rare cases."

The verdict came after nearly three months of courtroom drama. Loudspeakers installed in the court compound -- an unusual procedure for Kerala -- allowed large crowds to hear the testimony from the 81 witnesses called in the case.

A large crowd also gathered in the court premises to hear the verdict.

The judge said that the prosecution had proved beyond doubt that the priest caused the death of Mary, who incurred his wrath by marrying another man.

Father Lazar had come to know her in 1979 when she was a student here at Benzigar Hospital, run by the Church of South India, a Protestant Church body.

He was at the time in charge of constructing a new block for the hospital.

The priest gave financial help to Mary a poor student, till she completed her studies, but her mother grew uneasy about her daughter´s growing intimacy with Father Lazar and tried to talk her out of their scandalous relationship.

Mary became disillusioned when the priest refused her request that they marry, and later got engaged to the man she married in 1985, Lazar Miranda.

In announcing the verdict, the judge observed that "Father Antony Lazar became as vengeful as a poisonous snake."

According to trial evidence, the priest then hired a gang to murder Mary.

The gang leader, also sentenced to death by hanging, led the other six in breaking into Mary´s home, where they found her breast-feeding her infant.

The gang dragged her away from the child, whose father is Miranda, and clubbed her, while her mother and a younger sister looked on.

Mary was rushed to a nearby hospital and later moved to a medical college in Trivandrum, the Kerala capital, where she died the next day.

According to a postmortem report, the woman had 19 wounds on her body.

The priest´s sudden disappearance soon after the crime attracted suspicion, and he was reported to have traveled around incognito.

The state government, then a coalition led by the Congress Party of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, faced criticism for failing to arrest the culprits.

In particular, the government was accused of sheltering the priest in order to avoid offending the powerful Christian community in the state.

After a Marxist-led government came into power in March 1987, the priest was arrested in November that year, and the arrest of the other suspects followed.

Father Lazar is the third Christian and second Catholic priest convicted for murder in Kerala, whose 25 million people include 4.3 million Catholics.

The first involvement of a Catholic priest in a Kerala murder case was in 1966 when a Father Benedict created a similar storm in the state.

A lower court sentenced him to death, but the high court later set him free, saying that the priest was wrongly implicated while the real culprit got away.

In another case, a Jacobite (Syrian Orthodox) priest was charged in 1985 with the murder of a teenage girl while she resisted an alleged rape attempt.

The priest, George Charian, was sentenced by a district court in Kottayam, 100 kilometers north of Quilon, to life imprisonment, which in India usually runs for 14 years. His case is now on appeal before the High Court.