NEW DELHI – One of the main suspects in the 2008 anti-Christian violence in Orissa, India, was been sentenced to seven years in prison for murder.
A fast track court on Tuesday sentenced Bharatiya Janata Party legislator Manoj Pradhan to seven years "rigorous imprisonment" for the murder of Parikhita Nayak, a Dalit Christian. Nayak was among more than 100 people, mostly Christians, who were killed following the murder of a Hindu leader.
Since the attacks in August 2008 that left some 50,000 people homeless and hundreds of churches destroyed, only a couple dozen persons have been convicted and far more have been acquitted. The Orissa state government handed out its first conviction nearly a year after the violence.
Christians have expressed frustration and concern over the government's lack of action and accused officials of neglecting Christians and impoverished Dalits.
Tuesday's conviction was welcomed by Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The human rights organization called it a "significant boost to the cause of justice in Orissa."
"We continue to encourage the state government of Orissa to ensure that all perpetrators and inciters of the 2008 violence are brought to justice, that victims are rehabilitated properly, and that community reconciliation is pursued," said CSW National Director Stuart Windsor.
Although Pradhan was charged with murder, he was convicted only for fatal attack and arson. He was sentenced under Section 326 (making severe injury to a person, which caused his death) and Section 148 (unlawful assembly) and has been ordered to pay a fine of 5,000 rupees (around 107 U.S. dollars). His accomplice, Prafulla Mallick, was also convicted and sentenced with the same punishment.
The 30-year-old legislator had over 14 cases against him, most of which were murder charges. His acquittal in seven cases because of a lack of evidence came as a shock to the Christian community, which expressed grave disappointment for the failing judiciary.
Also, despite his role in the riots, Pradhan was elected from the G. Udayagiri constituency in the 2009 Assembly elections.
The Archbishop of Bhubaneswar-Cuttack Diocese, Raphael Cheenath, hailed the court's verdict against Pradhan.
"This is the judgment which we had been waiting for since a long time," he said. "This gives an occasion to repose faith in the judiciary."
The Christian community in Orissa, however, believes the sentence against Pradhan was too soft.
"We are not entirely satisfied," said attorney Bhibu Dutta Das, who is also the spokesperson for Orissa regional council of Protestant churches. "Pradhan spearheaded the riots and has several criminal charges against him. He cannot be let off with a simple punishment."
"We will be filing a criminal revision in the Orissa High Court for the enhancement of the period or for life-imprisonment. He sure cannot escape the judiciary," Das told Christian Today.
Over 800 criminal cases were registered during the peak of the 2008 violence.