NEW DELHI, July 2 (CDN) – Christians in Orissa state had mixed feelings about the sentencing on Tuesday (June 29) of state legislator Manoj Pradhan to seven years in prison for causing grievous hurt and rioting – but not for murder.
“Pradhan is not convicted of murder, but offenses of voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons and rioting were upheld,” attorney Bibhu Dutta Das told Compass. “Pradhan will be debarred from attending the Orissa Legislative Assembly unless the order of conviction is stayed by the Orissa High Court, or if special permission is granted by the court allowing him to attend.”
Kanaka Rekha Nayak, widow of murdered Christian Parikhita Nayak, acknowledged that the verdict on Pradhan and fellow Hindu nationalist Prafulla Mallick in the August-September 2008 violence against Christians did not meet her expectations. She said she was happy that Pradhan was finally behind bars, but that she “expected the court to at least pronounce life imprisonment on Pradhan and Mallick for the gruesome act that they committed.”
Das said he will try to increase the sentence.
“Pradhan spearheaded the riots and has several criminal charges against him – he cannot be let off with a simple punishment,” Das said. “We will be filing a criminal revision in the Orissa High Court for enhancing the period to life imprisonment.”
The day after Pradhan was sentenced, two Hindu nationalists were reportedly convicted of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” in the burning death of a paralyzed Christian during the 2008 attacks on Christians in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district and sentenced to only six years of prison.
UCAN agency reported that Sushanta Sahu and Tukuna Sahu were convicted and sentenced on Wednesday (June 30) in the death of Rasananda Pradhan, a paralytic burned alive when Hindu extremists set his house on fire on Aug. 24, 2008. Church leaders criticized the lenient sentences.
Manoj Pradhan has been charged in 14 cases related to the August-September 2008 anti-Christian attacks. In seven of the cases he has been acquitted, he was convicted of “grievous hurt” in this one, and six more are pending against him.
Of the 14 cases in which he faces charges, seven involve murder; of those murder cases, he has been acquitted in three.
After a series of trials in which murder suspects in the 2008 Kandhamal district violence have gone free as Hindu extremist threats kept witnesses from testifying, the testimony of Nayak’s daughter, 6-year-old Lipsa Nayak, helped seal Pradhan’s conviction.
His widow, Rekha Nayak, told Compass that due to the severe threats on her life that she has received, she and her two daughters were forced to flee the area and go into hiding.
There were around 1,500 Hindu supporters present for this week’s verdict, a source in the courtroom told Compass on condition of anonymity.
“We had to leave the place before the judgment was pronounced and could not enter that area for three or four days after the verdict,” said the source, adding that prosecuting lawyers and human rights activists received the main threats.
Along with the seven years of prison, the Phulbani Court sentenced the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of the Legislative Assembly of Orissa from G. Udayagiri, Kandhamal to a fine a little more than US$100, as it did for Mallick. The verdict came from Fast Track Sessions Court I Judge Sobhan Kumar Das in the Aug. 27, 2008 murder of 31-year-old Parikhita Nayak, a Dalit Christian from Tiangia, Budedipada, in Raikia block of Kandhamal district.
Pradhan was also accused of setting fire to houses of people belonging to the minority Christian community.
“I have the highest regard for the judiciary,” Pradhan told Press Trust of India after this week’s verdict. “We will appeal against the verdict in the higher court.”
Cases have been filed against Pradhan for rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, causing disappearance of evidence of offense, murder, wrongfully restraining someone, wrongful confinement, mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, voluntarily causing grievous hurt and voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means.
Dibakar Parichha of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass that the judgment was “a good boost to the Christian community.”
“When the trials were on, the Nayak family faced terrible times,” Parichha added. “Pradhan and his associates threatened Kanaka Rekha, the widow of the deceased, right inside the courtroom of dire consequences if they testified about them.”
Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar diocese issued a statement saying that the verdict had boosted confidence in the judiciary that criminals will be punished.
“People have been waiting for good judgment, and we have confidence in the judiciary that criminals will be punished,” Cheenath said, adding that the sentence will show criminals that the law will not spare any one. “One day or other, they will be punished.”
The Rev. Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, told Compass that the verdict offered some hope.
“The fact that something has happened gives us some hope that more convictions would take place in the trials to come,” he said.
Calling the conviction “justice that was long overdue,” Howell said that not much can be expected from Fast Track Courts as no security is provided to witnesses.
During the 2008 anti-Christian attacks that followed the death of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, Lipsa Nayak’s parents and her sister had taken refuge in the forest to escape the fury of the Hindu extremists, but the rampaging mob tracked them down.
Lipsa, then 4 years old, along with her mother and then 2-year-old sister, Amisha Nayak, watched in horror as the crowd allegedly beat her father for two hours and then killed him by cutting him into pieces and burning him.
Rekha Nayak filed a complaint and a case was registered against Pradhan, Mallick and others for murder, destroying evidence, rioting and unlawful assembly. Pradhan was arrested on Oct. 16, 2008, from Berhampur, and in December 2009 he obtained bail from the Orissa High Court.
Despite his role in the attacks, Pradhan was the only BJP candidate elected from the G. Udayagiri constituency in the 2009 Assembly elections from Kandhamal district. He had campaigned inside jail.
On March 14, Rekha Nayak and her daughter Lipsa testified in court in spite of the threats. Rekha Nayak reportedly testified that when the Hindu mob demanded that her husband renounce Christianity or face death, he kept quiet, which led to his death.
Prosecution and defense lawyers questioned Lipsa for more than 90 minutes, and she reportedly answered all questions without wavering. Asked by the judge if she could identify the killer of her father, she pointed to Pradhan.
So far he has been exonerated of murder charges against him for “lack of witnesses.” Christian leaders say that Pradhan has been intimidating witnesses because of his position as a member of the Legislative Assembly.
The government of Orissa has set up two Fast Track courts to try cases related to the violence that spread to more than a dozen districts of Orissa. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.
Trials are being held for 38 cases in which 154 people have been convicted and more than twice that many have been acquitted, as high as 621 by one count. Victims filed 3,232 complaints in the various police stations of Kandhamal district. Of these, police registered cases in only 832 instances.
“Nearly 12,000 people are accused in the riot case – 11,803 are out on bail,” said attorney Das.
*** A photo of Kanaka Rekha Nayak and her younger daughter Amisha is available electronically. Contact Compass Direct News for pricing and transmittal.