Jun 4, 2006
Bhopal, June 4 (IANS) After two years in prison, 16 Christians accused of murder, attempted murder and arson were exonerated by a Madhya Pradesh court, citing invented testimonies and lack of evidence.
The Alirajpur trial court in the state's Jhabua district announced the verdict on May 31, according to media reports.
The 16 people were taken into custody following clashes between Christians and Rashtrya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) members that took place in January 2004 following the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in a school run by the Church.
A certain Arun Pal, believed to be an RSS member, was killed and 10 others sustained injuries. Subsequently, the police charged 16 Christians under various sections of the Criminal Procedure Code. They were denied bail both by the Madhya Pradesh High Court and Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, in view of the seriousness of the case, directed the trial court to speed up the trial and pass the judgement in a time-bound manner, fixing May 31, 2006, for its disposal.
The judges absolved the 16 people from all charges against them for lack of evidence. The court also found that testimonies produced by the prosecution had been deliberately fabricated and manipulated.
'The first Additional District and Sessions Judge Shaida Bano Rahman in her 60-page judgement acquitted all the accused, as the prosecution failed to prove the charges levelled against them', said Salavudeen Sheikh, counsel for the accused.
Father Anand Muttungal, Madhya Pradesh Bishops' Conference spokesman, who played an important role in the trial, expressed his satisfaction at the verdict. 'The decision has vindicated the Church once again,' he said.
'They were in prison despite being innocent. This incident will certainly help to strengthen public faith in the judiciary. Two years in jail for no crime is a matter of grave concern for all who believe in the values of liberty, fairness and justice,' said Father Babu Joseph, spokesman of the Indian Bishops' Conference.
He added: 'Persecution against Christians in the state continues, with Jabalpur district becoming a theatre of anti-Christian activities in recent months. This intimidation campaign includes forced conversions to Hinduism and attacks on places of worship by fundamentalist groups, aimed at creating the same culture of intolerance prevalent in Gujarat.'