06/02/2006, 00.00
INDIA
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Christians found innocent after two years in prison

by Nirmala Carvalho

A court in Madhya Pradesh exonerated 16 Christians accused of murder, citing invented testimonies and lack of evidence. Local bishops said anti-Christian activities have increased in the area as Hindu extremists try to create the same culture of intolerance prevailing in Gujarat.

Bhopal (AsiaNews) –After spending two years in prison on false accusations, 16 Christians in Madhya Pradesh, India, have been declared innocent. The verdict was handed down on 31 May by the Court of Alirajpur in Jhabalpurt district. The 16 detainees had been accused of murder and attempted murder in the context of clashes that took place between 11 and 17 January between Christians and members of the extremist Hindu group, Rashtrya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS).

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. At the time the incidents took place, police arrested a group of Christians following the death, in the clashes, of a RSS activist and the wounding of 10 others. The 16 people were imprisoned merely on the basis of suspicion and both the High Court of Madhya Pradesh as well as the Supreme Court denied them bail.

The spokesman of the Bishops' Conference of Madhya Pradesh, Fr Anand Muttungal, expressed satisfaction about the verdict. Fr Anand played an important role in the trial, striving to demonstrate the Christians' innocence. He said: "The decision has vindicated the Church once again."

Learning about the news, Fr Babu Joseph, spokesman of the Indian Bishops' Conference, told AsiaNews: "They were in prison although they were innocent; this incident will certainly help to strengthen public faith in the Judiciary of India. 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."

However, persecution against Christians continues in the region. In recent months, Jhabalpur district became a theatre of anti-Christian activities perpetrated amid the silence of the local population. The Bishops' Conference of Madhya Pradesh denounced that this intimidation campaign included "forced conversions to Hinduism and attacks on places of worship by fundamentalist groups aimed creating the same culture of intolerance prevalent in Gujarat." And the authorities merely look on.

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