By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries
NEW DELHI, INDIA (ANS) -- Morning Star News (http://morningstarnews.org) is reporting that the sentencing of seven Christians this month to life in prison for the murder that triggered anti-Christian riots in India's Orissa state resulted from a "biased and unfounded conviction", Christian attorneys and leaders said.
Swami Laxmananda Saraswati. (Wikipedia)
The New Delhi Correspondent of the news service said that Maoists have twice claimed responsibility for the Aug. 23, 2008 murder of Hindu leader Laxmananda Saraswati and his four followers in Kandhamal District of the eastern state of Orissa (officially "Odisha" since 2011).
While the state is part of India's "Red Corridor" and most Maoist extremists are said to be Christians, nowhere in the judicial process was it established that the seven Christians convicted are Maoists, Christian leaders said.
"The trial court has proceeded in a biased manner and convicted these innocent persons against whom there is no clinching evidence," the Rt. Rev. D.B. Hrudaya, representative of the Evangelical Churches of Orissa, told Morning Star News.
"Obviously, the judgment was declared under political pressure that it has to be like this. We will appeal in the Orissa higher court for the seven Christians."
The story said that an eighth suspect, Pulari Rama Rao (alias Uday), reportedly has links with Maoists and was also sentenced to life in prison. Police reportedly recovered from Rao a pistol used in the killing. Several other Maoists accused in the case, including leader Sabyasachi Panda, have absconded.
The court of the additional district and session judge of Orissa state in Phulbani on Sept. 30 found the eight guilty of conspiring and murdering Saraswati and his four disciples.
Among the charges for which the eight were convicted was unlawful assembly and rioting. They were sentenced on Oct. 3. A ninth suspect was released for lack of evidence.
The seven accused Christians were implicated primarily on the basis of belated statements by two witnesses, Mahasingh Kanhar and Birendra Kandar, whose testimony changed in the course of the trial, defense attorneys told Morning Star News. Initially called by the prosecution, the two witnesses surprised them by saying they didn't know anything about the case.
After prosecutors won the right from the High Court to re-examine them, Kanhar and Kandar switched their testimony again, saying they saw the suspects meeting in a forest and overheard them conspiring against the Hindu leader.
"The inconsistencies available in the prosecution case and the attempt to implicate the accused persons by hiring witnesses cannot go unnoticed," S.K. Padhi, trial court lawyer on behalf of the accused told Morning Star News. "Whenever the witnesses failed to support the prosecution case at the initial stage, they started supporting examination on recall for the reasons best known to the prosecution. This unusual behavior of the witnesses clearly indicates that at a later state the witnesses have been tutored at the instance of the police."
Two eyewitnesses at the scene of the killing in Tumudibandh, Kumudini Pradhan and Malati Pradhan, said there were four assailants, two with masks and two without, and described them as "tall and dark." This later led to the identification - without a police lineup of other people - of two Christians, Durjyodhan Sanamajhi and Bijaya Kumar, as suspects. But another eyewitness, security guard Brahmavhari Madhap Chaitanya, stated that four gunmen who entered the ashram were all wearing masks, and that he could not identify them.
Morning Star News went on to say that some have suggested that the investigating officer may have neglected to question eyewitnesses at the crime site, as witnesses there at that time did not disclose information to police, said Tehmina Arora, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom-India, who appeared for the accused at the Supreme Court for their bail application.
"It's hard to understand why those who were eyewitnesses to such a tragic event failed to disclose the same to the police," she told Morning Star News. "The reliance placed on certain witnesses by the court seems unjustifiable and based on assumptions and presumptions. Furthermore, in spite of little evidence of the same, the court has made very strong and unwarranted statements against the seven Christians."
Attorney Pratap C. Chhinchani, counsel in the High Court of Orissa, said evidence was insufficient for a conviction.
"The evidence which have been brought on record are hardly sufficient to convict these accused persons, since the charge of criminal conspiracy or murder and other offenses have not been proved or established against them by leading cogent evidence," Chhinchani said.
Church leaders said that the seven Christians were arrested without being informed of the charges against them, with four of them dragged from their homes in the middle of the night in whatever they were wearing.
"The judge at Fast Track Court at Phulbani, Orissa, intentionally delayed the hearings of the cases for years," said Sajan George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians. "The accused were detained in jail without bail from the time of their arrest till the date of their conviction despite numerous bail applications filed on their behalf."
Violence against Christians in Orissa
Saraswati was a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist umbrella group opposed by Orissa's communist Naxalite movement. His death set off anti-Christian attacks, with ethnic and political differences also playing a role in the violence. At least 100 people were killed, according to church leaders.
Some 5,600 houses in 415 villages were looted and set on fire, and 54,000 people were left homeless.
Nearly 300 church buildings were destroyed, along with a number of convents, schools, hostels and welfare facilities, according to the government figures.
Many of the victims lost identity papers and title deeds to their properties that are vital to exercise their basic constitutional rights.