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Updated: August 10, 1989 05:00 PM GMT
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The Kerala high court has reduced to life imprisonment a death sentence passed on a Catholic priest convicted of involvement in the murder of a woman three years ago.

A two-man division bench of the high court said Aug. 4 that facts of the case "clearly showed that Antony Lazar and Sasi had conspired with seven others to murder Marykutty."

The district court of Quilon, 150 kilometers south of Cochin, sentenced Father Antony Lazar of Punlaur diocese to death in 1988, after finding him guilty of plotting the murder of a Catholic nurse, Marykutty (Little Mary).

He allegedly had illicit relations with the 20-year-old nurse for several years. According to the post mortem report, she had 19 wounds on her body.

The district court also sentenced to death Sasi, leader of an eight-man gang that broke into the woman´s house and clubbed her at the priest´s bidding. The priest was angered by her marrying another man.

The other gang members received prison sentences ranging from three to 14 years.

The district judge, in reading his verdict, said that despite a respectable position in society, the priest must be given the severest punishment under India´s penal code because he plotted the crime against a helpless woman.

The court case and verdict, announced July 22, 1988, received wide coverage in India´s national press. However, Kerala high court judges said the case was not the "rarest of rare" ones which merit extreme punishment.

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

The high court also confirmed the sentence of life imprisonment awarded by the lower court to four of the accused. Three others were aquitted for lack of sufficient proof of involvement in the crime.

Marykutty was murdered Oct. 13, 1986, while on the staff at the primary health center at Kundra near Quilon.

The prosecution said that while she was a student at Benzigar Hospital in Quilon, she developed an intimate relationship with Father Lazar.

The priest gave financial help to the poor student while she completed her studies. She became disillusioned when the priest refused her request to marry, and married another man in 1985.

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

The priest´s sudden disappearance after the crime attracted suspicion, and he reportedly traveled incognito. He was arrested in November 1987 at Madras, the capital of neighboring Tamil Nadu state.

Father Lazar is the third priest (one Orthodox and two Catholics) convicted of murder in Kerala, whose 30 million people include 4.5 million Catholics.

The first occurred 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 he was wrongly implicated while real culprits got away.

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

Father George Cherian was sentenced by a district court in Kottayam, 100 kilometers north of Quilon, to life imprisonment, which in India usually means 14 years. But the high court upheld his appeal and set him free.


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