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(March 1, 2006) – The Washington-DC based human rights group, International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that Mrs. Indira Iyengar, a member of the Madhya Pradesh State Minorities Commission, has filed a writ petition in India’s High Court, praying that 14 Christians who have been wrongly locked in jail for the last two years in connection with a murder be released.

“The writ petition, which I filed last week in the Madhya Pradesh High Court, is expected to come up for hearing on March 2. I hope and pray that the petition will be accepted, as I cannot bear the pain and trauma the Christians and their family members are going through,” Iyengar told ICC.

“The family members of the accused are in a terrible financial condition; they do not have any source of income. Therefore, I have urged the court to grant bail and give compensation to them,” she said.

She claims that all the accused were falsely implicated and that the court of the district magistrate of Jhabua was acting under political pressure of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in imprisoning them. “This is evident from the fact that the bail applications of the implicated accused members of the Christian community are constantly being rejected.”

The 14 accused, all residents of Puniwat village, which comes under Kathiwada police station in Alirajpur Tehsil of Jhabua district, were booked under Sections 147, 148, 149, 302, 435, 307, 114, 120 (b) of the Indian Penal Code for killing a Hindu fundamentalist, Arjun Pal.

The names of the accused Christians are: Deepak Johnson, 23; Rajendra Bhurla, 25; Mamsingh Philip, 55; Gamhel Premlal, 21; Kenneth Stefan, 53; Teophil Stefan, 45; Yunus Ramsingh, 50; Wilson Yonathan, 45; Shyamlal Amos, 40; Amar Singh, 40; Rinkesh Amersingh, 20; Rev. Emmanuel Ariel, 28; Ramesh Chander Bagal, 50; and Rajendra Sunar Singh, 50.

“The complaint had the names of only 12 Christians, but to please the RSS activists the local police registered cases against 18 Christians, 16 of whom were remanded to judicial custody while two were granted bail,” Iyengar said. The remaining 14 have been in jail ever since.

Bagal, one of the accused, is a school teacher in a Catholic mission school at Jhabua. He was implicated and arrested about four months ago despite the fact that he was present in the school and took classes on the day of the incident about 100 km away from the spot. Rajendra Sunar Singh, another accused who was from the Central Reserve Police Force, had merely come to that area to see his parents.

Explaining the background of the case, Iyengar said that the murder took place during anti-Christian violence which erupted after the body of a minor tribal girl, who was raped and killed, was found inside a Catholic school on January 11, 2004. Taking advantage of the situation, the RSS accused Christians of the rape and murder which led to religious tensions. The RSS also raised the issue of conversions to fan the flame.

A police report later said that the man guilty of the tribal girl’s rape and murder was a Hindu, and not a Christian. In addition, the Superintendent of Police in Jhabua submitted its report to the state government saying that no complaints of forcible conversion were registered in the last 10 years in the district.

On January 16, 2004, Ms. Krishna Ben, a disciple of a Hindu cleric Asaram Bapu, came to Aamkout from Gujarat state along with four associates and held a meeting in the area with the help of RSS activists. She spread hatred against the Christian community in the meeting, and later led an attack on the Catholic school. In the violence that followed, 15 houses belonging to Christians were burnt, three churches were ransacked, and 10 Catholic priests were beaten up.

In the specific case Iyengar is working on, the slain Pal was part of a group of Hindu extremists who attacked Christians. On January 17, 2004, while they were heading towards Aamkout, they started recklessly firing and shooting arrows on innocent Christians near Bhabhare, which is at the border. In the commotion that ensued, Pal was shot by his own associates.

The attackers quickly dumped Pal into a jeep and fled the scene. Pal was later taken to the police station. A member of the state legislative assembly from the BJP, Nagar Singh Chauhan, allegedly pressured the man in charge of the Kathiwada police station to register false cases against the Christians, amongst whom were priests, school teachers, and farmers.

The Director General of Police at the time stated in a press conference after the incident that the gun shots had been fired from the church premises despite the fact that the church is about 3 km from the area were the incident took place.

Meanwhile, a leading national daily, The Indian Express, reported on February 27 that the RSS was portraying Pal as a martyr on par with the likes of Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose, two great freedom fighters of India who fought against British rule. Christians fear that such a move of the RSS is directed at creating more tensions in the already troubled district.