Supreme Court in India Rejects Bail of Orissa Legislator


BJP assemblyman convicted in two murders in 2008 violence says he’s innocent.

NEW DELHI, January 28 (CDN) — India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday (Jan. 25) rejected the bail granted to Hindu nationalist Orissa state legislator Manoj Pradhan following his conviction in the murder of a Christian, Parikhita Nayak.

Pradhan, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was convicted on June 29, 2010 of “causing grievous hurt” and “rioting” and sentenced to seven years of prison in the murder of Nayak, of Budedi village, who died on Aug. 27, 2008. In its decision, the Supreme Court ordered the High Court to reconsider its decision to grant him bail.

Pradhan had been granted bail by the High Court on July 6 on grounds having won the April 2009 state assembly election. Contesting the election from jail, he had become a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) representing Kandhamal’s G. Udayagiri constituency. On Sept. 9, 2010 he was convicted in the murder of Bikram Nayak of Budedipada, for which he was sentenced to six years of rigorous imprisonment (see http://www.compassdirect.org, “Court in India Convicts Legislator in Second Murder Case,”
Sept. 10, 2010). He received bail within 40 days of that conviction.

Parikhita Nayak’s widow, Kanaka Rekha Nayak, had challenged the granting of bail before the Supreme Court. She pointed out in her petition that there were seven other murder cases against Pradhan, including the second conviction.

“Being an MLA was not grounds for granting of bail,” she told Compass.

Nayak’s petition also argued that, because of his position, Pradhan intimidated witnesses outside of jail. She told Compass that, after receiving bail in spite of their convictions, Pradhan and an accomplice continued to roam the area, often intimidating her.

In the Supreme Court decision, Justice B. Sudarshan Reddy and Justice S.S. Nijjaron wrote that the High Court should have taken into consideration the findings of the trial court and the alleged involvement of the respondent in more than one case.

“The [bail] order clearly reflects that the High Court was mainly impressed by the fact that the respondent is a sitting MLA,” they wrote. “In the circumstances, we find it difficult to sustain the order.”

Pradhan was accused of stopping Parikhita Nayak and then calling together a large group of persons armed with axes and other weapons, who then hacked Nayak to death; afterward they sought to dispose of the body by burning it.

Pradhan denied all charges against him, telling Compass by telephone that they were “baseless.”

“I have full faith in the judiciary system, and justice will be done,” Pradhan said, adding that he and other “innocent people” have been arrested due to political pressure and that the real culprits are at large.

On his next move, he said he would surrender himself to police custody if necessary and then file another application for bail.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, told Compass that he was pleased.

“Pradhan deserves to be behind bars in more than one case, and it was a travesty of justice that he was roaming around terrorizing people,” Dayal said. “He was not involved in every single act of violence, but he was the ring leader. He planned the violence; he led some of the gangs.”

Dibakar Parichha of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass that police records showed that Pradhan was a “field commander of Hindu extremists sent to kill Christians.”

The state government’s standing counsel, Suresh Tripathy, supported this week’s cancellation of bail.

 

Cases against Legislator

Pradhan told Compass that a total of 289 complaints were registered against him in various police stations during the August-September 2008 attacks on Christians in Kandhamal district, Orissa, out of which charge sheets were filed in only 13 cases.

Of the 13, he has been acquitted in seven and convicted in two murder cases, with six more cases pending against him – “Three in Lower Court, two in the High Court and One in the Supreme Court,” Pradhan told Compass.

Of the 13 cases, seven involved murder; of those murder cases, he has been acquitted in three.

Cases have been filed against Pradhan for rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, causing disappearance of evidence of offense, murder, wrongfully restraining someone, wrongful confinement, mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, voluntarily causing grievous hurt and voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means.

Pradhan was also accused of setting fire to houses of people belonging to the minority Christian community.

The Times of India reported Pradhan as “one of the close disciples” of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) leader Swami Laxamananda Saraswati, whose assassination on Aug. 23, 2008, touched off the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal and other parts of Orissa.

 

Status of Trials

Expressing complete dissatisfaction in the trial system, Dayal told Compass that the two Fast Track courts are “meting out injustice at speed.”

“One of the main reasons,” he said, “is lack of police investigation, the inadequacy of the department of projections to find competent public prosecutors, and the inadequacy of the victim community to find a place in the justice process.”

As a result, he said, victims are not appropriately represented and killers are not appropriately prosecuted.

“Therefore, the two courts find enough reason to let people off,” Dayal said.

Complaints filed at a police station in Kandhamal after the violence of 2008 totaled 3,232, and the number of cases registered was 831.

The government of Orissa set up two Fast Track courts to try cases related to the violence that spread to more than a dozen districts of Orissa. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

The number of violent cases in the Fast Track courts is 231 (non-violent cases numbered 46, with total cases thus reaching 277). Of the violent cases, 128 have resulted in acquittals and 59 in convictions; 44 are pending.

Of the 722 people facing trial, 183 have been convicted, while 639 have been acquitted.

Report from Compass Direct News

Convicted Hindu Nationalist Legislator in India Released on Bail


Stunned Christians suspect bias in case of politician’s role in Orissa violence.

NEW DELHI, July 30 (CDN) — Less than a month after Orissa state legislator Manoj Pradhan was sentenced to seven years of prison for his part in anti-Christian mob violence in 2008, he was released on bail pending his appeal.

Along with fellow Hindu nationalist Prafulla Mallick, Pradhan on June 29 was convicted of causing grievous hurt and rioting in connection with the murder of a Christian, Parikhita Nayak. Justice B.P. Ray heard the petition on July 7, and the same day he granted Pradhan and Mallick bail conditional on posting bail bond of 20,000 rupees (US$430) each.

Pradhan and Mallick were released from jail on July 12 and await the outcome of an appeal to the Orissa High Court.  

Attorney Bibhu Dutta Das said that ordinary people don’t get bail so easily when convicted of such crimes, and he questioned how Pradhan could be granted release just for being a legislator.

“It takes years for convictions in High Court,” Das told Compass. “We will not sit silent. We will challenge this bail order in the [New Delhi] Supreme Court very soon.”

The Christian community expressed shock that someone sentenced to seven years in prison would get bail within seven days of applying for it.

“I am very disappointed with the judiciary system,” said Nayak’s widow, Kanaka Rekha Nayak, who along with her two daughters has been forced into hiding because of threats against her. “I went through several life threats, but still I took my daughters for hearings whenever I was called by the court, risking my daughters’ lives – certainly not for this day.”

In addition to the bail, the court has issued a stay order on the 5,000 rupee (US$107) fine imposed on Pradhan and Mallick. Attorney Das told Compass the decision was biased, as the Lower Court Record was not even consulted beforehand.

“This is the normal court procedure, and it was bypassed for Pradhan,” he said. “The judgment was pre-determined.”

Dibakar Parichha of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass, “Sometimes the judicial system seems mockery to me. One court convicts him, and another one grants him bail.”

The rulings are demoralizing to those who look toward the courts for justice, he said.

“There is a very powerful force behind this. It is not as simple as it looks,” Parichha said.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, said he was surprised by the orders.

“While it is a legal right for anybody to get bail, it is surprising that Pradhan was wanted in so many cases, and he can coerce and influence witnesses,” Dayal said. “His petition should not have been granted.”

The two Hindu nationalists were convicted by the Phulbani Fast Track Sessions Court I Judge Sobhan Kumar Das. Pradhan, member of the state Legislative Assembly (MLA) from G. Udayagiri, Kandhamal for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), filed a petition stating that his name was not mentioned in the original First Information Report filed by Kanaka Rekha Nayak, but that he was dragged into the case later.

The bail order includes a warning to Pradhan to refrain from intimidating witnesses, stating, “The petitioner shall not threaten the witnesses examined.”

Rekha Nayak, along with her daughters Lipsa Nayak (4 years old when her father was killed) and Amisha Nayak (then 2 years old) were eyewitnesses to the murder of her 31-year-old husband, a Dalit Christian from Tiangia, Budedipada, in Kandhamal district. He was murdered on Aug. 27, 2008.

Rev. Dr. Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, urged the Christian community to keep hope.

“The case is still on, not that it has come to an end,” he said. “There is a move that is being made to take the case further.”

Attorney Das has said he plans to appeal Pradhan’s sentence of seven years, in hopes of increasing it to life imprisonment.

 

Cases

Pradhan, who denies any wrongdoing, has been charged in 14 cases related to the August-September 2008 anti-Christian attacks. In seven of the cases he has been acquitted, he was convicted of “grievous hurt” in the Nayak case, and six more are pending against him.

Of the 14 cases in which he faces charges, seven involve murder; of those murder cases, he has been acquitted in three.

Cases have been filed against Pradhan for rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, causing disappearance of evidence of offense, murder, wrongfully restraining someone, wrongful confinement, mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, voluntarily causing grievous hurt and voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means.

Pradhan was also accused of setting fire to houses of people belonging to the minority Christian community.

The Times of India reported Pradhan as “one of the close disciples” of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) leader Swami Laxamananda Saraswati, whose assassination on Aug. 23, 2008, touched off the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal and other parts of Orissa.

Rekha Nayak filed a complaint and a case was registered against Mallick and others for murder, destroying evidence, rioting and unlawful assembly. Pradhan was arrested on Oct. 16, 2008, from Berhampur, and in December 2009 he obtained bail from the Orissa High Court.

Despite his role in the attacks, Pradhan – campaigning from jail – was the only BJP candidate elected from the G. Udayagiri constituency in the 2009 Assembly elections from Kandhamal district.

In recent court actions, Fast Track Court-II Additional Sessions Judge Chittaranjan Das on July 21 acquitted nine persons who had been arrested in the Tikabali area for various offenses, including arson, due to “lack of evidence.” The main charge against them was torching of a church on Aug. 28, 2008 at Beladevi village.

At least 132 persons have been convicted in different cases related to the 2008 violence in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, state Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said on July 19. Patnaik said that 24 members of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal (Youth Wing of World Hindu Council) and VHP have been arrested and jailed.

Revenue and Disaster Management minister S.N. Patro said on July 21 that the 55 Christian places of worship were damaged in Tikabali block; 44 in G. Udaygiri; 39 in Raikia; 34 in K. Nuagaon; 19 in Baliguda; 16 in Daringbadi; nine in Phulbani; six in Kotgarh; five in Tumudibandha; and one each in Phiringia and Chakapada blocks.

 

SIDEBAR

India Briefs: Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka - Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh accused a pastor in Aldur of forceful conversion on July 24 and threatened him, telling him not to preach about Jesus. The All India Christian Council reported that the extremists filed a police complaint against Pastor Anand Kumar of forceful conversion. Both police and extremists ordered Pastor Kumar to remove the cross and name plate of the church. At press time area Christians were taking steps to resolve the issue.

Jammu and Kashmir – The state’s Foreigners Registration Officer reportedly issued a notice to a senior Christian worker to leave India by July 20 after a false complaint of forceful conversion was filed against him. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the state succumbed to pressure by Muslim extremists to deport Father Jim Borst, who has run Good Shepherd School in the Kashmir Valley since 1963. The school has been attacked on two occasions by members of other schools who felt they were unable to compete with it. For eight years these groups have led a campaign against Borst, claiming he was forcibly converting people under the guise of providing education. Borst, who denies the charge, has a valid visa till 2014. The interior minister reportedly said he had no knowledge of the deportation order, and Borst’s superiors indicated he would not leave.

Madhya Pradesh – Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists on July 18 disrupted Christian worship in Barwaha, near Indore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Pastor Subash Chouhan of the Indian Evangelical Team was leading Sunday worship when the extremists stormed in on the terrified Christians. They accused Pastor Chouhan of forceful conversion, photographed the congregation and told the pastor to close his tailoring school, which includes non-Christian students. This is the second time Pastor Chouhan has been arrested on false charges of forceful conversion; previously he was jailed for three days. The case was pending at press time.

Punjab – Police arrested Christians on July 10 after Hindu nationalists beat them, falsely accusing them of forcible conversion in Gurdaspur. Members of the Indian Pentecostal Church of God (IPCG) Western Region were visiting houses in the area on a social outreach mission when a group of extremists began to argue with them and then started beating four of them with their fists and shoes. Later they handed the Christians over to police, along with three more Christian men and five Christian women, complaining that they were converting people from the Hindu religion. Pastor Promod Samuel, along with the IPCG head A.M. Samuel, rushed to the Gurdaspur City police station to help the Christians, but officers detained them as well. Samuel told Compass that the president of the Hindu extremist groups Shiva Sena and Bajrang Dal, as well as many other Hindu nationalist leaders, gathered at the police station clamoring for officers to file charges against the 14 Christians. Hearing of the arrests, Christian leaders of Gurdaspur requested their release. The Christians were not released until Samuel signed an agreement assuring that Christians would not enter any non-Christian home. “The extremists are continuously following us around, to keep a check on us.” Samuel said.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists toppled a church building and attacked Christians on July 6 in Parawada, Visakhapatnam. The All India Christian Council (AICC) reported that local Hindu extremists were jealous and angry that a church stood at the entrance of the village and urged the Christians to move. The extremists threatened to attack the Christian community, claiming that they would allow no church in the area. When the church pastor refused to give in to their demand, they began damaging his household goods and pulled down the church building. The extremists also stopped the Christians from drawing water from a well. AICC was taking steps to resolve the matter at press time.

Madhya Pradesh – Police on July 4 arrested and charged two Christians under the state’s controversial “anti-conversion” law at Jawahar Nadar, Adharthal. According to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), a member of the Apostolic Christian Assembly, Shravan Kuman Dubey, invited Vishal Lal to lead a prayer service for his 6-year-old son Ravi’s birthday. Around 7:30 p.m., during prayer, a mob of nearly 75 Hindu nationalist extremists accompanied by police entered the house and falsely accused those present of forced conversion, taking 14 Christians to the Adhartal police station. After nearly four hours, police charged Shravan Kumar and Vishal Lal with forcible conversion and sent the others home. With GCIC intervention, both were released on bail the next day.

Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists belonging to the Dharma Raksha Samithi (Religion Protection Council) on June 28 stopped a Christian school bus and questioned young elementary students in Indore. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the bus was carrying Christian students from Orissa to their school in Indore. The extremists ordered the young students to get out of the bus and asked them whether forceful conversion was taking place, frightening the schoolchildren as police remained mere spectators. After threatening to harm the Christians if they carried out any Christian activities, they let them go. Area Christian leaders condemned the incident as a sign of Hindu extremists’ “reign of terror” in the state and demanded an investigation.

Karnataka – On June 13 in Anekal, Bangalore, Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh beat a pastor whom they accused of forceful conversion. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that, in an apparently premeditated attack, an unidentified extremist telephoned Pastor Sam Joseph to come and pray for a sick person. The pastor agreed, only to be taken to a gathering of Hindu extremists with media people. The extremists accused the pastor of forceful conversion, beat him up and dragged him to Hebbagudi police station. Police released the pastor without charges after forcing him to agree that he would no longer lead Christian meetings.

Himachal Pradesh – State officials on June 5 sealed a Mission India building, claiming that it belongs to “outsiders,” in Bari, Mandi district. The Evangelical Fellowship of India’s (EFI) advocacy desk reported that the government closed the building, which functioned as a Bible study center and orphanage, claiming that no land in the area could be owned by non-native people. Pastor Sam Abraham told Compass that Mission India purchased the plot in 2005, constructed a building in 2007 and began using it as a Bible study center and orphanage in 2008. In July 2008, Hindu extremists filed a complaint against Mission India of forceful conversion and demanded the building be shut down. The extremists have since accused the Christians of forceful conversion, verbally abused them for their faith and threatened to kill them if they did not leave. Mission India officials asserted that the land legally belongs to them and that they have all necessary documents. At press time the Christians were looking for a place to rent that would accommodate at least 10 orphans.

Report from Compass Direct News

Conviction of Legislator in India Falls Short of Expectations


In murder of Christian, Hindu nationalist sentenced to seven years for causing ‘grievous hurt.’

NEW DELHI, July 2 (CDN) — Christians in Orissa state had mixed feelings about the sentencing on Tuesday (June 29) of state legislator Manoj Pradhan to seven years in prison for causing grievous hurt and rioting – but not for murder.

“Pradhan is not convicted of murder, but offenses of voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons and rioting were upheld,” attorney Bibhu Dutta Das told Compass. “Pradhan will be debarred from attending the Orissa Legislative Assembly unless the order of conviction is stayed by the Orissa High Court, or if special permission is granted by the court allowing him to attend.”

Kanaka Rekha Nayak, widow of murdered Christian Parikhita Nayak, acknowledged that the verdict on Pradhan and fellow Hindu nationalist Prafulla Mallick in the August-September 2008 violence against Christians did not meet her expectations. She said she was happy that Pradhan was finally behind bars, but that she “expected the court to at least pronounce life imprisonment on Pradhan and Mallick for the gruesome act that they committed.”

Das said he will try to increase the sentence.

“Pradhan spearheaded the riots and has several criminal charges against him – he cannot be let off with a simple punishment,” Das said. “We will be filing a criminal revision in the Orissa High Court for enhancing the period to life imprisonment.”

The day after Pradhan was sentenced, two Hindu nationalists were reportedly convicted of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” in the burning death of a paralyzed Christian during the 2008 attacks on Christians in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district and sentenced to only six years of prison.

UCAN agency reported that Sushanta Sahu and Tukuna Sahu were convicted and sentenced on Wednesday (June 30) in the death of Rasananda Pradhan, a paralytic burned alive when Hindu extremists set his house on fire on Aug. 24, 2008. Church leaders criticized the lenient sentences.

Manoj Pradhan has been charged in 14 cases related to the August-September 2008 anti-Christian attacks. In seven of the cases he has been acquitted, he was convicted of “grievous hurt” in this one, and six more are pending against him.

Of the 14 cases in which he faces charges, seven involve murder; of those murder cases, he has been acquitted in three.

After a series of trials in which murder suspects in the 2008 Kandhamal district violence have gone free as Hindu extremist threats kept witnesses from testifying, the testimony of Nayak’s daughter, 6-year-old Lipsa Nayak, helped seal Pradhan’s conviction.

His widow, Rekha Nayak, told Compass that due to the severe threats on her life that she has received, she and her two daughters were forced to flee the area and go into hiding.

There were around 1,500 Hindu supporters present for this week’s verdict, a source in the courtroom told Compass on condition of anonymity.

“We had to leave the place before the judgment was pronounced and could not enter that area for three or four days after the verdict,” said the source, adding that prosecuting lawyers and human rights activists received the main threats.

Along with the seven years of prison, the Phulbani Court sentenced the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of the Legislative Assembly of Orissa from G. Udayagiri, Kandhamal to a fine a little more than US$100, as it did for Mallick. The verdict came from Fast Track Sessions Court I Judge Sobhan Kumar Das in the Aug. 27, 2008 murder of 31-year-old Parikhita Nayak, a Dalit Christian from Tiangia, Budedipada, in Raikia block of Kandhamal district.

Pradhan was also accused of setting fire to houses of people belonging to the minority Christian community.

“I have the highest regard for the judiciary,” Pradhan told Press Trust of India after this week’s verdict. “We will appeal against the verdict in the higher court.”

Cases have been filed against Pradhan for rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, causing disappearance of evidence of offense, murder, wrongfully restraining someone, wrongful confinement, mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, voluntarily causing grievous hurt and voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means.

Dibakar Parichha of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass that the judgment was “a good boost to the Christian community.”

“When the trials were on, the Nayak family faced terrible times,” Parichha added. “Pradhan and his associates threatened Kanaka Rekha, the widow of the deceased, right inside the courtroom of dire consequences if they testified about them.”

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar diocese issued a statement saying that the verdict had boosted confidence in the judiciary that criminals will be punished.

“People have been waiting for good judgment, and we have confidence in the judiciary that criminals will be punished,” Cheenath said, adding that the sentence will show criminals that the law will not spare any one. “One day or other, they will be punished.”

The Rev. Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, told Compass that the verdict offered some hope.

“The fact that something has happened gives us some hope that more convictions would take place in the trials to come,” he said.

Calling the conviction “justice that was long overdue,” Howell said that not much can be expected from Fast Track Courts as no security is provided to witnesses.

 

Girl’s Testimony

During the 2008 anti-Christian attacks that followed the death of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, Lipsa Nayak’s parents and her sister had taken refuge in the forest to escape the fury of the Hindu extremists, but the rampaging mob tracked them down.

Lipsa, then 4 years old, along with her mother and then 2-year-old sister, Amisha Nayak, watched in horror as the crowd allegedly beat her father for two hours and then killed him by cutting him into pieces and burning him.

Rekha Nayak filed a complaint and a case was registered against Pradhan, Mallick and others for murder, destroying evidence, rioting and unlawful assembly. Pradhan was arrested on Oct. 16, 2008, from Berhampur, and in December 2009 he obtained bail from the Orissa High Court.

Despite his role in the attacks, Pradhan was the only BJP candidate elected from the G. Udayagiri constituency in the 2009 Assembly elections from Kandhamal district. He had campaigned inside jail.

On March 14, Rekha Nayak and her daughter Lipsa testified in court in spite of the threats. Rekha Nayak reportedly testified that when the Hindu mob demanded that her husband renounce Christianity or face death, he kept quiet, which led to his death.

Prosecution and defense lawyers questioned Lipsa for more than 90 minutes, and she reportedly answered all questions without wavering. Asked by the judge if she could identify the killer of her father, she pointed to Pradhan.

So far he has been exonerated of murder charges against him for “lack of witnesses.” Christian leaders say that Pradhan has been intimidating witnesses because of his position as a member of the Legislative Assembly.

The government of Orissa has set up two Fast Track courts to try cases related to the violence that spread to more than a dozen districts of Orissa. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Trials are being held for 38 cases in which 154 people have been convicted and more than twice that many have been acquitted, as high as 621 by one count. Victims filed 3,232 complaints in the various police stations of Kandhamal district. Of these, police registered cases in only 832 instances.

“Nearly 12,000 people are accused in the riot case – 11,803 are out on bail,” said attorney Das.

Report from Compass Direct News

PHILIPPINES: CHRISTIANS FEAR FAILED PACT INCREASES RISK OF REPRISALS


Frustrated Muslim demand for larger autonomous region in Mindanao could lead to war.

DUBLIN, October 6 (Compass Direct News) – Militant Islamists in the southern island of Mindanao have stepped up their attacks on majority-Christian villages following the failure of a peace agreement that would have enlarged an existing Muslim autonomous region there.

With Muslim commanders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the southern Philippines yesterday saying ongoing support from the international community was necessary to prevent a full-scale war breaking out in Mindanao, both Muslim and Christian residents in the disputed territories were fearful of what the future might hold.

“The problem is that many people living in these areas don’t want to be part of a Muslim autonomous region,” a source in Mindanao who preferred to remain anonymous told Compass.

“The closer you get to these zones, the more nervous people are,” he said. “The town of Kolambugan, where most of the fighting took place in mid-August, became a virtual ghost town for a while. It had a population of 25,000. But people are slowly returning to their homes.”

A Christian family from the area said many people were afraid to sleep at night because they kept hearing reports that they would be attacked at midnight.

“When MILF forces attack Christian villages, Muslim neighbors are afraid that Christians will retaliate against them, even though they have nothing to do with the violence,” the source added. “This has happened in the past.”

He also explained that some moderate Muslims are drawn to support the MILF because the rebels claim the Christians have stolen their ancestral homelands. Communities in Mindanao often struggle with extreme poverty.

“If MILF is successful in gaining control over these lands, the people assume that their economic situation will improve,” he said. “So although they want the fighting to stop, they sympathize with the MILF.”

While the conflict is primarily political, religion plays a significant role. As a member of the Moro Youth League stated in an Aug. 5 national television interview in the Philippines, “As a Muslim, in order to live in a righteous way, you need to be living under sharia [Islamic] law and with an Islamic government. We believe we have the right to fight for this.”

Other Youth League members on the program agreed that sharia was a primary objective of autonomy, and that Islam was the only “real path of doing anything in this world.”

 

Violence Erupts

Some 2,000 MILF supporters yesterday held a protest march in Marawi city, Lanao del Sur, appealing to the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to compel the Philippine government to revive the aborted peace agreement that would have enlarged the existing Muslim autonomous region in the south.

Breakaway MILF commanders on Aug. 18 attacked several majority-Christian villages after the Supreme Court prevented the Aug. 5 signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD). The agreement potentially would have given the MILF power to establish an Islamic state governed by sharia law.

Christian leaders in Mindanao appealed to the Supreme Court when they realized that if they voted against inclusion in the proposed Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE), their majority-Christian villages would become small islands in the midst of MILF-administered territory. As a result, they feared, they would be forced to move elsewhere.

Incensed by the 11th-hour stalling of the agreement, three MILF commanders on their own initiative led attacks against towns in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte provinces on Aug. 18, burning homes, seizing livestock and killing at least 37 people. Another 44,000 residents immediately fled the area.

When some Christian residents armed themselves in defense, Secretary of Interior Ronaldo Puno warned that anyone carrying weapons would be disarmed.

The MILF has only 11,000 active fighting men, according to local estimates. But by Aug. 20, the National Disaster Coordinating Council had reported a total of 159,000 people displaced by the rebel attacks.

The Philippine army quickly retaliated, sweeping villages in an attempt to seize the rebel commanders.

After two weeks of violent clashes, the Philippine government officially abandoned the MOA-AD. Spokeswoman Lorelei Fajardo said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would seek a new agreement based on consultation with legislators and local politicians rather than negotiations with the MILF.

Furthermore, the government would concentrate on the “disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation” of MILF cadres, Fajardo said.

In response, MILF leaders rejected any renegotiation of the peace deal with Arroyo’s administration.

 

Overcoming Prejudice

An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on Aug. 7 stated that the MOA-AD would only reinforce prejudices between Christian and Muslim communities.

Under the agreement, WSJ claimed, the government would further divide Mindanao into Muslim and Christian enclaves, increasing the likelihood of territorial disputes. Separating Muslims from the rest of Philippine society, it stated, would encourage a vision already held by MILF to help create a pan-Islamic state covering several countries in the region, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Finally, the WSJ said, less Philippine control of Mindanao would “invite even more terrorist activity in an area that already has strong ties to al Qaeda.”

While there are proven terrorist leanings in groups such as the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf, not all area Muslims approve of or engage in such activities.

Camilo Montesa, a key figure in peace negotiations, in his blog on Aug. 30 described an encounter with a young man who believed that Muslim residents would readily seize property from Christians once the BJE were formed.

Others told Montesa that, “Muslims were scouting and marking the big houses of Christians in Cotabato and staking a claim over them in anticipation of the signing of the peace agreement.”

“The hearts and minds of the people are the battlefields, and not some hill or base camp,” Montesa concluded. “There is a limit to what arms and war can produce … It is unfortunate that we are so divided as a people at this point in our national life.”

 

Reclaiming ‘Ancestral Domains’

As Islamic identity strengthened in the Middle East after World War II – and as many Philippine Muslims traveled to study in Middle Eastern countries – certain sectors of the Bangsamoro population became committed to reclaiming “ancestral domains.”

Their claims dated back to the rule of the Sultanate of Sulu, which existed prior to Spanish colonial rule in the 1500s, and the establishment of the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1935. When the last sultan died in 1936, the fledgling Philippine government refused to recognize his heir, effectively eradicating the traditional Bangsamoro power base.

When the Philippines became a republic in 1946, its constitution allowed for the establishment of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. Initially the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fought alone for this autonomous territory; in 1977, however, MNLF member Hashim Salamat – who had studied in Saudi Arabia – and his followers seceded from the movement and founded the rival MILF.

The Philippine government signed an agreement with the MNLF in January 1987, and territories were added to the resulting Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) through a series of plebiscites or referendums in 1989, 2001, 2002 and 2006.

MILF commanders later laid claim to a further 712 villages outside the ARMM.

Negotiations between the government and the MILF began in earnest in June 2001. Both parties were to formally sign the resulting MOA-AD on Aug. 5, a deal which could have led to the creation of the separate Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, or fully-functioning state, replacing the ARMM by 2010.

When details of the agreement were leaked to the press, however, Christian politicians in regions of Mindanao affected by the agreement appealed to the Supreme Court, which in turn issued a temporary restraining order on the signing of the agreement on Aug. 4.

Report from Compass Direct News