MUMBAI, India – Five Christians imprisoned in India for the past 11 years after being accused of murdering a Hindu holy man have been released on bail, years after two police officers admitted the men were falsely accused. Two other Christians accused of the crime were released earlier this year.
The death of Swamy Laxmananda Saraswati in Kandhamal in 2008 led to the worst anti-Christian rioting in the history of India, leaving roughly 100 people dead, thousands injured, 300 churches and 6,000 homes destroyed, and 50,000 people displaced.
The mobs had been incensed by rumors that Christians had killed Saraswati, although local Maoist guerrillas later admitted to the crime.
The seven Christians were arrested soon after the riots and convicted in 2013 in a fast track trial in the state of Odisha. They stayed in prison even after two police officers admitted that the charges were false when testifying at a government inquiry into the Kandhamal pogrom in 2015.
In August 2016, India’s Supreme Court ordered the state government to re-investigate 315 cases of violence reported during the riots, where police did not follow up on reported crimes, or the perpetrators were not prosecuted.
The 315 cases concerned are instances in which reports were made to the police but were not followed through or did not result in prosecution of the offenders.
India’s Supreme Court on Nov. 26 ordered that Bhaskar Sunamajhi, Buddhadev Nayak, Durjo Sunamajhi, Sanatan Badamajhi and Munda Badamajhi be freed. Gornath Chalanseth and Bijaya Kumar Sanaseth were freed earlier this year.
Father Dibyasingh Parichha, an archdiocesan lawyer that has been representing the accused, told Crux that “justice has been done to these innocent persons.”
Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar said he was “happy and also sad.”
“I am overjoyed that finally my people have received bail; on the other hand, I feel saddened that innocent Christians were incarcerated for eleven long years, and also their families suffered tremendously, these eleven years of immense suffering for no fault of theirs, except that they were Christians,” explained the archbishop.
Barwa has been a long-time advocate for the victims of Kandhamal, and his own niece – a nun – was sexually assaulted during the riots.
He told Crux the Christians of the area are “very joyful” that the innocent men have finally been freed.
“It is a success story, because God is faithful,” the archbishop said.
“On Monday, I was in Kandhamal and [the men’s wives] wanted to meet me, to ask about the case of their innocent husbands; at the same time, they wanted to thank me, because the entire legal cost has been borne by the archdiocese except for one case,” he continued.
“We have been praying continuously,” he said.
Father Ajaya Singh is from Kandhamal and serves as the Director of OROSA (Odisha Regional Forum for Social Action).
“We welcome the release on bail of our innocent Christians. This was an immoral and illegal detention, they were innocent and detained without any basis,” he told Crux.
“Firstly, they shouldn’t have been detained, they had to undergo this just because they were minority Christian religion,” he said, noting that four of the detained men were from India’s marginalized Tribal community, while the other three were Dalits, the lowest class of India’s caste system that were formerly known as the Untouchables.
“They were innocent and in no way were involved. The judgement of conviction in the trial court was flimsy and without application of the mind, unfortunately they were prosecuted,” Singh continued.
“The prosecuting agencies haven’t done their job. Instead of arresting those who committed the crime, they arrested these seven people just because they happened to be Christians. They just wanted to link the murder of the Guruji with the Christians and satisfy the right-wing clamour for involvement of the Christians, and thus justify the large-scale violence, massacre, murders, rape and burning of Churches and homes of Christians in 2007/2008. Somehow, they wanted to blame the Christians,” the priest told Crux.
Anto Akkara, a journalist who has been covering the Kandhamal case for years, said he was “thrilled” that the seven men were released.
“But this is not the end. It is only bail,” Akkara told ucanews.com.
“Now the focus must turn to the Odisha High Court at Cuttack as the appeals against their questionable conviction have been dragging on there for six years,” he said.
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