A Special Report by ICC
05/19/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – After being falsely imprisoned for four and a half years in the murder case of a Hindu nationalist leader in eastern Orissa state, the hearing of seven Christian men has been delayed again, raising doubts over the authorities’ apathetic and indifferent attitude towards the minority in the region.
In 2008, the murder of Swami Laxmanananda triggered off violent pogroms against Christians in Orissa, during which more than 600 villages were ransacked, 5,600 houses in 415 villages were looted and set on fire, 54,000 people were left homeless and at least 38 people were murdered.
Underground militant Maoists openly took responsibility for the crime, but not before seven Indian Christians were falsely accused and thrown in jail as lambs to appease the angry Hindu majority.
Cancellation of Hearings
On April 1 this year, the prisoners and their families were due to be heard in a fast-track court that was established to speed up the judicial process following the countless crimes committed during the pogroms. Convinced that the day had come to embrace their husbands, six of the seven wives, along with their children, went to the pastoral center Konjamendi, which provides assistance and support to Christian prisoners and their families. But they were only to be disappointed.
Following the constant and frustrating pattern of four years of delays and cancelations, once again the judge announced that his court was closed and that the case had been passed into the hands of a regular Session Court.
Since the discovery of their innocence, court dates have been delayed and judges have repeatedly failed to show up for hearings. In 2012, seven hearings were canceled in the space of 60 days, at a time when 267 cases in ‘fast-track courts’ were still waiting to go to trial. Now that the case has been sent to a regular Session Court, the possibility for delayed justice has only multiplied, confirming the suspicions of many that the accused are in prison simply for being Christians.
The new session is scheduled for May 22, but after endless delays and cancelations, it seems to be nothing more than a date with disappointment. The fast-track court “is moving at snail’s speed in the case against the seven accused, despite an observation by the High Court two years ago that there was not enough material evidence against the Christians. The High Court, therefore, ordered that the trial be concluded in a speedy manner,” Pratap Chhinchani, the attorney of the accused, told ICC earlier this year.
When it was revealed that the Maoists had murdered the leader, it was too late. The men were in prison and the government was obligated to release the falsely accused, or at least reopen the case and investigate their innocence. However, it has been four and a half years and the men are still in prison, while their wives and children are languishing in poverty without any reprieve.
Women are not equipped to take on the leadership role in a region that is rooted in patriarchy, leaving them to be dependent on generous benefactors or sacrificing the education of their children to be exploited in child labor, which barely meets their needs.
Without the seven men in prison, their families have been left ignored and neglected by a judicial system whose indifference ought to be put on trial. It is believed that the chief reason for keeping the men in prison, purposely delaying their day in court, is that the prosecutors are helping the state to “save face” because the real culprits are simply too hard to capture.
That the prisoners are Christians only satisfies a craving for vengeance among hardened Hindu fundamentalists, turning a straightforward crime into a communal and religious conflict to gain political mileage.
Religious persecution in India is rooted in political motivations, ambition and identity. The religious sentiment of the poor is exploited by political opportunists to demonize Christians as followers of a foreign religion, corruptible by the West and antithetical to a national identity that is equated with Hinduism.
As the new court date approaches, the disillusioned wives are seeking the support of local churches and pastors to pray for God’s intervention and the quick release of their husbands. On Mar. 19, church leaders accompanied six of the seven women to Phulbani prison, to visit their husbands.
Though Christians in Orissa are on the road to recovery, the darker spectre of politically motivated communal conflict looms large over all of India.
Some analysts say that it will take another year before the men can return home to their families. The church is called upon to pray for the next hearing, as seven families hope against the odds that it will not take as long as a year for justice to be served.
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