5 Christians wrongly imprisoned for over a decade released by India Supreme Court

A group of Christians gathers together near their rebuilt church in Kandhamal. In 2008, almost every church in the area was destroyed by Hindu nationalists. Local Christian leaders report there are now twice as many churches as in 2008.
A group of Christians gathers together near their rebuilt church in Kandhamal. In 2008, almost every church in the area was destroyed by Hindu nationalists. Local Christian leaders report there are now twice as many churches as in 2008. | John Fredricks

Update Appended

Five Christians who’ve been imprisoned for over a decade in India for a crime that they and advocates say they didn’t commit were granted bail last week by the country’s Supreme Court. 

The five Christian men were among seven men accused of the 2008 assassination of 84-year-old Hindu monk Swamy Laxmananda Saraswati and four of his associates in the Kandhamal district of India’s eastern Odisha state. 

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As a result of the revered Hindu leader’s death, Christians in Odisha experienced what rights groups call the most severe outbreak of persecution in the country’s history.

Dozens of Christians were said to have been killed and villages destroyed. Reports suggest that hundreds of Christians were told by lynch mobs to either convert or die. ADF India reports that at least 8,400 houses were burned, 360 churches destroyed and over 56,000 people were displaced by the Odisha violence in 2008. 

Shortly after the riots, the seven Christian men were accused by the Hindu community of killing the religious leader as tension rose between the two religious communities. The men were convicted in 2013. 

Their names are Gornath Chalenseth, Bhaskar Sunamajhi, Bijay Kumar Sanseth, Budhadeb Nayak, Durjo Sunamajhi, Munda Badamajhi and Sanathan Badamajhi.

Advocates for the accused men say that they were convicted based on a fabricated claim that lacked credible evidence. They were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The men were convicted despite local Maoists reportedly taking responsibility for the murder. Additionally, advocates claim that the seven men were arrested and jailed simply to appease the Hindu community. 

Appeals of their convictions have been pending for the last six years. 

Chalenseth was released on bail by the India Supreme Court in May. In July, Bijaya Sanaseth was released on bail by the same court. Last Tuesday, the court granted bail to the remaining five. 

The release of the seven convicted men comes after previous applications for bail had been denied. 

There is no indication when their appeal hearings will be held. 

Religious leaders, lawyers and human rights advocates praised the release of the convicted Christians.  

“Everyone is praising the Lord,” Father Augustine Singh of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Archdiocese, who has counseled to the men’s families, told the Union of Catholic Asian News. “We are happy and grateful to all concerned, who supported this cause. We are also happy that justice is given, though it took time. The next step is pinning hope in a fair justice system.” 

Archbishop John Barwa voiced his joy with the release in remarks to the Catholic news outlet Crux.

“I am overjoyed that finally, my people have received bail,” Barwa was quoted as saying. “[O]n 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.”

Christian persecution has steadily increased across India since the election of President Narendra Modi in 2014 and the rise of his  Bharatiya Janata Party, which is the political arm of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

India ranks as the 10th worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List

“Since Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014 the level of religious persecution of Christians has gone up dramatically,” Open Doors USA’s 2019 dossier on persecution in India reads. “Every year more violent incidents are registered, mainly because the government is looking the other way.”

According to ADF India, there were at least 275 incidents of Christian persecution reported between the first 10 months of 2019, while only 32 police cases filed. ADF India has also reported there to have been over 1,000 cases of Christian persecution in India since 2014. 

Update, Dec. 4, 2019: 

The five men were granted bail last week and will be released this week. 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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