11/02/2009, 00.00
INDIA
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Orissa: they kill and burn two people, convicted only for destruction of evidence

by Ajay Kumar Singh
Kandhamal court makes paradoxical ruling in the case of three defendants involved in the murder of a 65-year-old widow and a tribal chief who defended Christians. The event took place on 25 October 2008. The All India Christian Council calls the decision a miscarriage of justice. For Dhirendra Panda, a Hindu and a human rights activist, the ruling threatens the values of humanity and democracy.

Bhubaneshwar (AsiaNews) – The people who killed a Hindu tribal leader who tried to defend Christians and burnt his body and house to erase all traces were acquitted of murder charges, but were sentenced to three years of hard labour and a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$ 21) for destroying the evidence. The defendants remain out on bail until 25 November pending an appeal to the Orissa High Court. The three are Senapati Pradhan, 65, and Revenswar Pradhan and Tidinja Pradhan, both 62. They stood trial with seven other people for the murder of tribal elder Sidheswar Pradhan and Padisti Nayak, a 65-year-old widow, who was burnt alive, in the village of Solesoru.

“I cannot believe the murderers were acquitted,” Nabajini Pradhan, 35, told AsiaNews. He is the tribal chief’s nephew who filed a complaint with police 12 days after the incident.

“Our family is at risk; we are getting death threats; they want to eliminate us,” he said. “They killed and burnt my uncle’s body to destroy every shred of evidence.”

The events date back to 25 August, a day after the funeral of Swami Laxamananda Saraswati, a Hindu leader whose murder triggered a wave of anti-Christian violence in Orissa.

Eyewitnesses testified at the trial that Hindu extremists had already shown a desire to attack Christians as they made their way to the funeral.

Frightened, Christians had fled to the forests and only a few had stayed behind. The latter bet on the protection of Sidheswar Pradhan, an important local tribal leader, who had already come to their defence a year earlier.

When the swami’s funeral ended, a number of Hindu militants attacked Christian homes.

The few Christians who dared to stay behind ran to Sidheswar Pradhan but were followed by the extremists.

A 60-year-old cousin of the tribal chief, a Christian Dalit, spoke to AsiaNews about those moments.

“Sidhewar told the fanatics not to burn the homes of the innocent and defenceless. He said: ‘You destroyed a church; that is enough. Why attack people who have not done anything wrong? Just because they are Christians? They are not murderers; they are not criminals; they are part of our people’.”

“My cousin gave his life defending Christians.  He was a just and honest man. Some years ago, he ran in village elections with the backing of the Bharatiya Janata Party too. But they (the extremists) could not accept that one of their chiefs would stop their ethnic cleansing. That was too much. They stabbed him several parts of the body, then burnt him, and left only when they set his house on fire.”

On the same day when the tribal chief was brutally murdered, Hindu extremists burnt Padisti Nayak alive. She had left her home in Adaskupa, near G.Udayagiri, to visit her one married daughter, who was living in the village of Solesoru.

When news spread about the Hindu attacks, people fled, but the 65-eary-old widow stayed behind, convinced that extremists would not harm an old woman.

Twelve days after the attack on 25 August, the woman’s son-in-law, Iswar Digal, who had fled to a refugee camp, contacted a district magistrate for information about his mother-in-law.

The authorities inspected the family’s burnt-out home in Solesoru and found only charred human remains, flesh and bones, which they collected as evidence of the violence.

For human rights activist Dhirendra Panda Hindu, who is Hindu, “justice has been derailed. Some of those who carried out the investigation are linked to the Sangh Parivar. They are determined to protect the accused and are willing to use a lopsided approach rather than ensure justice for the victims. It is not only the religious rights of people that are at stake, but also the core values of humanity and democracy”.

John Dayal, founder and leader of the All India Christian Council (AICC), called the verdict a “miscarriage of justice”. He said he would appeal to give justice to the victims.

“We saw who killed Sidheswar and burnt Padisti Nayak alive; yet there is no evidence,” he added. “Their hands are soaked in blood, but they are scot-free, free to hunt Christians again”.

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