NEW DELHI (Compass Direct News) – Following six acquittals last week in trials for those accused of the 2008 anti-Christian violence in India’s Orissa state and the release on bail of a key suspect, Christians are losing heart to strive for justice, according to a prosecuting attorney.
The acquittal of six suspects last week raises the total to 121, with just 27 convicted in the Orissa violence by Hindu extremists.
“The victims are so discouraged due to the increasing number of acquittals that they neither have hope nor motivation for the criminal revision of their cases in the higher court,” attorney Bibhu Dutta Das of the Orissa High Court told Compass.
He said the acquittals are the result of defective investigations carried out by police.
“This has been done intentionally, to cover-up the fundamentalists,” he said.
Das said that in many cases police fraudulently misrepresented the ages of culprits so that the ages of the accused in court would not match the age denoted in the victims’ First Information Reports, leaving the court no option but to let the alleged culprits go.
“There can be two persons by the same name, so age is a major identification factor that is considered,” said Das.
Christian leaders in Orissa said the state government’s claims of justice for the victims of the anti-Christian violence ring hollow as the number of acquittals is far more than convictions.
An Orissa state Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) who was facing charges in 14 cases of “murder, burnings and assaults” in last year’s Kandhamal district violence against Christians has been released on bail in one of the murder cases.
Manoj Pradhan, MLA from the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in G. Udayagiri block, faces a murder charge in a slaying in Tiangia village. The Orissa High Court awarded him bail in the case, and he was released from Phulbani jail on Oct. 30.
On that day he was also acquitted of arson in a house-burning in Banjamaha village due to “lack of evidence.” In trials relating to the Orissa violence of August-September 2008, the Hindu extremist perpetrators have reportedly intimidated many witnesses to keep them from testifying.
“With Manoj Pradhan, who has charges of murder against him, released on bail, this is a big threat to the witnesses of cases against him,” attorney Das told Compass.
If Pradhan remains free, Das said, he likely will be acquitted in all other cases as he will be able to threaten witnesses.
“Pradhan is already acquitted in six cases, whereas eight cases are still pending against him,” Das said.
Special Public Prosecutor Bijay Pattnaik told reporters that Pradhan was acquitted of the arson charge as only one witness stepped forward.
“He was let off for want of evidence as there was a lone witness in the case,” Pattnaik said. “Only the victim testified in the case, and the charges against Pradhan could not be proved.”
Fast Track Court-I Judge Sobhan Kumar Das on Oct. 30 acquitted Pradhan of the house burning, which took place on Oct. 1, 2008. Earlier Pradhan was acquitted in two murder trials due to “lack of evidence.”
In another case, witnesses had testified to the involvement of Pradhan in the kidnapping of Kantheswar Digal – subsequently murdered on Aug. 25, 2008 – in Sankarakhole village, Phulbani district, but their testimony failed to convince the court to condemn the BJP politician.
Pradhan was arrested and jailed in October 2008 and was elected as BJP MLA from the G. Udayagiri constituency while in jail.
Three Years of Prison
On Oct. 29 a fast track court at Phulbani sentenced three persons to three years rigorous imprisonment for destroying evidence in the murder of a man during the 2008 attacks in Kandhamal. Judge Das also imposed a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$21) each on Senapati Pradhan, 65, Revenswar Pradhan and Tidinja Pradhan, both 62. Failure to pay the fine would result in an additional three months of prison.
The three men were charged along with seven others for killing tribal elder Sidheswar Pradhan in the village of Solesoru, Tikabali block, on Aug. 25, 2008.
Prosecutors said the three men clubbed Sidheswar Pradhan to death in front of villagers and family members, and that his body was set on fire. But the Judge Das convicted the three only of destruction of evidence in the case, exonerating them of the murder charges saying, “It could not be proved.”
Padisti Nayak, a 65-year-old widow, was reportedly burned alive on the same day. She had stayed back and not fled even after hearing the news of violence against Christians, believing the attackers would not harm an elderly woman.
Twelve days later Iswar Digal, her son-in-law who had fled to a refugee camp, contacted a district magistrate for information about her. When authorities inspected the family’s gutted home in Solesoru, they found only charred human remains, flesh and bones, which they collected as evidence of the violence.
The court acquitted the other seven of all charges due to lack of evidence against them.
Nabijini Pradhan, nephew of Sidheswar Pradhan, told Asia News that his family has since been receiving death threats.
“I cannot believe the murderers were acquitted,” he reportedly said. “Our family is at risk; we are getting death threats; they want to eliminate us. They killed and burned my uncle’s body to destroy every shred of evidence.”
Human rights activist Dhirendra Panda, a Hindu, told Asia News that some investigators are linked to Hindu extremists.
“Justice has been derailed, and some investigators are linked to the Sangh Parivar extremists,” Panda reportedly said. “They are determined to protect the accused, willing to manipulate cases rather than ensure justice for victims. Now not only are the religious rights of the population undermined, but also the core values of humanity and democracy.”