Signs of Witness Intimidation Mount in Orissa, India

Fear factor results in transfer of rape case; meantime, 6-year-old girl says politician is killer.

NEW DELHI, April 2 (CDN) — Due in part to intimidation of witnesses in Kandhamal district, a judge this week granted a change of venue for the trial of men accused of gang-raping a nun during anti-Christian attacks in Orissa in 2008.

The trial will be transferred from Baliguda, Kandhamal to Cuttack, near the Orissa state capital of Bhubaneswar. Justice Indrajit Mohanty of the Orissa High Court on Tuesday (March 30) ordered the inter-district transfer of the trial. The nun, Meena Lilita Barwa, had argued that witnesses would be intimidated into refraining from testifying if the trial were held in Kandhamal district.

She also argued that Kandhamal’s intimidating atmosphere made it too dangerous for her appear in court there. Christians were hopeful that the transfer would lead the administration to review police and court processes in Kandhamal district.

Police have arrested 19 people for allegedly assaulting the nun on Aug. 25, 2008 and parading her half-naked through the streets.

Hindu Politician Identified as Killer

After a series of trials in which murder suspects in the 2008 Kandhamal district violence have gone free as Hindu extremist threats have kept witnesses from testifying, a 6-year-old girl has identified a powerful local politician as the man who killed her father.

In testimony at Fast Track Court No. 1 on March 14, Lipsa Nayak of Kandhamal identified Manoj Pradhan, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Orissa, as the man who cut and burned her father to death when Hindu extremists attacked Christians following the Aug. 23, 2008 death of a local Hindu leader.

Pradhan has been accused in nine cases of murder and in 14 cases of arson. So far he has been exonerated on the 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 Legislative Assembly. Lipsa’s mother, 32-year-old Kanak Rekha Nayak, has said that Pradhan and his associates have threatened to harm her family if they identified him as the killer.

The Nayak family lived in Tiangia, Budedipada, in Raikia block of Kandhamal district. During the anti-Christian attacks that followed the death of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, Lipsa’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 2-year-old sister, watched in horror as the crowd allegedly beat her father, Parikhita Nayak, for two hours and then killed him by cutting him into pieces and burning him.

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, the MLA from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from G. Udayagiri, Kandhamal.

Her mother later told media, “They played with him for a few hours before cutting him into pieces and dousing him with kerosene.”

Accused as a primary suspect in the murder along with Pradhan is Kali Pradhan. 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. Maoists have taken responsibility for the killing, though Hindu extremists accused Christians in an effort to spark anti-Christian violence. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Christian leaders have denounced the legal process in the Kandhamal violence, saying not only that witnesses have been threatened and the intimidated but that police investigations have been negligent or corrupt.

“There has been no conviction in any case of murder,” said Dr. John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council. “More than 70 people were killed, and trial is being held only for 38 or so of those deaths. Eleven murder cases have been tried with no one being indicted or sentenced for murder so far – because of terrible investigation by the police, a poor show by the prosecuting lawyers and shoddy judicial process.”

The 123 cases tried in the Fast track courts have resulted in 97 convictions and 323 acquittals, including several cases decided on Wednesday (March 31). Seven people in two separate cases were convicted of arson and rioting cases. Nata Pradhan, Jahala Pradhan, Ashok Mallick, Bapa Pradhan, and Udayanath Pradhan from Raikhala-Gadiapada village were sentenced for two years imprisonment for destroying the house of Birendra Nayak of the same village. They were also fined 2,500 rupees (US$55). In the other case, Ratnakar Pradhan and Parsuram Pradhan from village Tatamaha, Raikia block were convicted of riot and arson.

At the same time, Fast Track Court I Judge S.K. Das acquitted 20 people persons in three separate cases for lack of evidence.

“Witnesses are being coerced, threatened, cajoled and sought to be bribed by murderers and arsonists facing trial,” said Archbishop of Orissa Raphael Cheenath in a statement. Previously he had demanded that the cases of politically powerful persons such as Manoj Pradhan be transferred out of Kandhamal to ensure proper justice.

“We are deeply concerned about the high rate of acquittals in the Fast Track Courts,” Cheenath said. “Victims filed 3,232 complaints in the various police stations of Kandhamal. Of these, the police registered cases in only 832 instances.”

Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik filed a written admission in the Orissa Assembly in November 2009 in which he said 85 members of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), 321 persons of Hindu nationalist umbrella group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and 118 persons of Hindu extremist youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, had been arrested for their involvement in the Kandhamal riots.

While the government says that situation is normalizing in Kandhamal, Christian leader like Dr. John Dayal give a different story.

“While it is possible to visit one half of the district of Kandhamal and discover only peace, it is the other half of the district which speaks of the continuing tyranny,” he said. “The bloodshed has stopped because of belated police action, but the miscarriage of justice and the lost peace continue to haunt thousands of people who have not been able to go back to their homes for fear of their lives. Thousands of children cannot go to school, especially the girls. What is worse is that many girls have been trafficked.”

The district collector banned all Christian organizations from coming to the district to bring aid to victims after the 2008 violence, he added, “and it took an appeal to the Supreme Court of India by the archbishop of Bhubaneswar for much needed relief to be given to the people in the then refugee camps.”

He expressed doubts about the government portrait of normalcy in Kandhamal.

“Even if the church does its best, only half of the 5,600 or so houses burned to the ground will ever be rebuilt,” he said. “The district collector and other officers of the civil and police system who are guilty of gross dereliction of duty continue to be in control. Thousands of men continue to be without jobs. Is this normalcy?”

Firebrand Arrested

On March 20, a controversial leader of the VHP, Praveen Togadia, was arrested as he tried to defy orders prohibiting him from entering Kandhamal. Togadia had played a major role in whipping up passions among the Hindus of Kandhamal after the killing of Saraswati.

Togadia had led a procession with the body of Saraswati through different areas of the district for more than 100 kilometers, sparking off or intensifying violence against Christians.

The government of Orissa came under heavy fire from civil society for allowing the procession, and on the latest occasion the local administration was careful to detain Togadia under the Section 151 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which provides for authorities to make arrests to prevent potential offenses. Togadia was later released on bail.

Togadia termed the prohibition on his visit a “ban” that was “illegal and undemocratic.” In response to the “ban” on Togadia, the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar and the BJP protested with a 12-hour bandh (shut down) in Kandhamal on March 20, while the VHP held demonstrations in Bhubaneswar, Berhampur, Bolangir, Sambalpur and Cuttack. VHP also blocked National Highway 217 for one hour and burned an effigy of Chief Minister Patnaik.

“The state government didn’t stop foreign missionaries from going to tribal areas of Kandhamal and other parts of Orissa,” VHP leader Swadesh Pal Gupta said. “They were being provided with full support and freedom. But when a leader who is an International Secretary General of VHP tries to go to Kandhamal, the government stopped him. We are staging a nationwide protest against this.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Christian, human rights advocates call medical exam report false.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, February 19 (Compass Direct News) – Christian and human rights advocates said doctors likely fabricated a medical report that falsely concluded there were no signs of rape in the wife of a Bangladeshi pastor whom village Muslims have now threatened for pressing charges.

The Rev. Shankar Hazra of Chaksing Baptist church in Gopalganj district, 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Dhaka, said influential area Muslims have used threats to try to force him and his wife to withdraw charges of robbery and rape; he delined to name them out of fear of reprisals.

“If I do not withdraw the case, they said they will make a ‘Ganges [river] of blood’ here,” Rev. Hazra said.

Resident medical officer Dr. Ali Akbar of Sadar Hospital in Gopalganj told Compass that a report given to police on Thursday (Feb. 12) stated that a medical examination indicated the wife of Rev. Hazra was not raped.

“There was no sign of forceful intercourse in her body at the time of examination, which means the victim was not raped,” Dr. Akbar said.

Rev. Hazra told Compass that villagers said the examining doctors had been paid to falsify the medical report.

“I heard from some people in the locality that 50,000 taka [US$740] had been given to the doctor to twist the report,” he said.

The pastor accuses area Muslims of tying him up, robbing their living quarters at the church property and gang-raping his wife on Jan. 6. Rev. Hazra said that before leaving, the assailants also desecrated the church building.

Human rights advocate Rosaline Costa, coordinator of Hotline Human Rights in Bangladesh, told Compass that she would not trust the medical report.

“What my long experience as a human rights activist says is that these sorts of medical reports are always distorted by the accused if the victim is poor or a minority,” she said. “Police and medical doctors are influenced financially to give negative reports.”

Such false medical reports are a common phenomenon in Bangladesh for both minorities and also for poor majority people, Costa said.

“The victim is very poor and a minority Christian, so the report could be manipulated by the doctors,” said Costa. She said a DNA test not subject to bias would be conclusive.

The Rev. Milton Biswas, general secretary of Bangladesh Baptist Church Sangha, also suggested a DNA test.

“I am gob-smacked and shocked at how the report became false,” he said. “She might not have been raped, but a DNA test is needed to say whether she was raped or not.”

Rev. Hazra, 55, said he and his 45-year-old wife had gone to a toilet outside their home at about 2 a.m. on Jan. 6 when a man suddenly thrust a rifle at him. Seven or eight people tied him to a pillar on the porch, blindfolded his wife and took her inside the house, he said.

After the assailants had robbed the house of valuables and raped his wife, Rev. Hazra said, he managed to untie himself and found his wife lying unconscious on the bed.

Rev. Hazra and his wife said all of the assailants were Muslims, but that villagers tried to implicate non-Muslims and portray the attack as resulting from internal conflicts among Christians.

Police, influential villagers and local Muslim-owned media are trying to conceal likely anti-Christian motives for the crime, he said, by falsely accusing two Christians and a Hindu of participating. Police wrote the First Information Report (FIR) implicating the Christians and Hindu based on lies from villagers, and Rev. Hazra signed it without reading it due to his shaken state, he said.

Rev. Hazra’s wife, Depali Hazra, later filed an affidavit contesting the FIR in which the two Christians and one Hindu, along with a known criminal who is Muslim, were accused of the gang rape and theft. The Christians and Hindu were not involved in the rape and robbery, she reported in the affidavit.

“I was seriously ill after [the] gang rape, and my husband’s mind was unhinged at that time,” she reported. “Only [the] Muslim man Ilias Mridha and his yes-men did it. When I recuperated a little bit from illness, I came to know about the names of the Christians and Hindu in the case. Spontaneously and knowledgably I did this affidavit to get rid of those Christian and Hindu names from the case copy.”

Local Christians said Mridha, 38, who has been jailed several times, commits crimes under the direction of influential Muslims in the area.  

Report from Compass Direct News