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 


Hindu extremists beat Fr. Bernard Digal unconscious, leaving him bleeding in forest.

NEW DELHI, October 31 (Compass Direct News) – More than 3,000 people today attended the funeral in Bhubaneswar, Orissa of a Catholic priest who died on Tuesday (Oct. 28) from injuries sustained in anti-Christian violence that began in August.

Father Bernard Digal died in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, after an operation to remove a blood clot that developed in his brain due to a head injury from Hindu extremists attacking him on Aug. 25-26 in Kandhamal district, Orissa state. He was 46.

“He was smashed like a pulp,” Raphael Cheenath, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, told Compass. “Because of the hate campaign of the [Hindu extremist] Sangh Parivar, the attackers lost their humanity and they became devils. Human beings can’t do what they have done.”

Archbishop Cheenath flew with Fr. Digal’s remains from Chennai to Orissa. Treasurer of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese in Orissa, Fr. Digal was visiting Sankarakhole parish when violence flared after Maoists killed Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and his disciples on Aug. 23.

Though police suspected Maoists from the start and the outlawed Marxists had claimed responsibility for the murders by Sept. 1, Hindu extremists bent on stoking anti-Christian flames continued to publicize that Christians had committed the crime – and have not stopped doing so.

Fr. Digal and Father Alexander Chandy, along with driver Sisir Pradhan, had taken shelter in a forest after a furious mob gathered outside the parish shouting slogans to kill all missionaries. After spending two days in the forest, they left the forest after Fr. Chandy became ill, moving from village to village.

They finally took refuge in a gutted church building in Dudukangia village. It had been torched and only its walls were standing. Legs swollen from walking, the refugees hoped that the enraged Hindu mobs would not come, Archbishop Cheenath said.

But the mob tracked them down by midnight, the archbishop said, and the clerics and driver ran. The crowd caught hold of Fr. Digal, who later told Archbishop Cheenath, “The mob shouted to each other to kill me. I pleaded for my life, but in vain.”

Stripping Fr. Digal naked, the Hindu mob then hit him with crowbars, iron rods, cycle chains, axes, sticks and other weapons, the archbishop said.

“They made a bonfire to burn him alive,” he said.

Seeing the fire, Fr. Digal managed to escape and run through some thorny bushes but was caught shortly after. The intolerant Hindus continued to hammer him until blood flowed from his head and he lost consciousness, and they left him for dead, Archbishop Cheenath said.

“He lay there on the wet ground and in the cool breeze for six to seven hours,” he added. Two villagers who found him in the forest carried him to Phulbani.

After much pressure, the state administration took Fr. Digal to a private hospital in Bhubaneswar, under security cover, and from there he was taken to Holy Spirit Hospital in Mumbai.

Discharged the first week of October after more than a month in the hospital, he reached Chennai, Tamil Nadu on Oct. 12 to visit his friend the vicar general of the archdiocese, who was undergoing a heart treatment in St. Thomas Hospital.

“Fr. Digal, after coming to Chennai, complained of high fever, blood in the urine and headache, and lastly his lungs collapsed,” Archbishop Cheenath told Compass.

Tests revealed he had a blood clot in the brain, and he underwent emergency surgery on Sunday evening (Oct. 26), reported The Times of India. The next day, he developed acute respiratory disorder and slipped into a coma.

Kandhmal district Police Chief Pravin Kumar told the national daily that he had no knowledge of the attack on Digal.

“So many incidents took place,” he reportedly said. “I don’t know whether there was any formal complaint pertaining to the attack on him. The police can begin an enquiry into the incident if a complaint is lodged even now.”

The Orissa state government has ordered a probe into the death of Fr. Digal, according to The Statesman News Service.

Fr. Digal was ordained on May 29, 1992. He was a native of the village of Tiangia in Kandhamal.


Orissa Rape Victim’s Plea

Two months after a nun was raped and paraded half-naked on Aug. 25 in the anti-Christian violence in Orissa, the victim went before the media in New Delhi on Oct. 24 and recounted her traumatic experience.

Her head and face covered by a black scarf, Sister Meena Lalita Barwa accused police of being “friendly” with the attackers and of not being responsive to her plea. Expressing her distrust in Orissa police for failing to protect her from those who raped her and other attackers, she demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe.

The nun had gone into hiding after the attack but decided to come forward after the Supreme Court turned down her initial request for a CBI investigation last week.

Sr. Barwa read from her handwritten statement, giving stark details of the incident. Archbishop Cheenath accompanied her in the press conference.

“Two of them were holding my neck to cut off my head with an axe,” she said. “Others told them to take me out to the road; I saw Fr. [Thomas] Chellan also being taken out and being beaten.”

The 40 to 50 men were armed with axes, spades, crowbars, iron-rods and sickles, Sr. Barwa added. She said she was taken to a building full of ashes and broken glass and raped there, with the mob subsequently parading her and Fr. Chellan for about a half a kilometer. Upon reaching a market she asked about a dozen Orissa police to help her, she said, “but they did not move.”

“This hate campaign,” Archbishop Cheenath said, “is done under the very nose of the authorities, and they are mere spectators of these shameful deeds.”

At the Balliguda police station, the nun recounted, she told the inspector in charge and other government officers how she was attacked, raped, taken away from policemen and paraded half-naked, and how the officers did nothing as she wept bitterly. The inspector asked her, she said, if she knew “what will be the consequence” of filing a First Information Report (FIR).

On Aug. 26, as she was writing the FIR, the inspector told her to hurry and not write it in detail, she said.

“State police failed to stop the crimes, failed to protect me from the attackers, they were friendly with the attackers,” she said. “They tried their best that I did not register an FIR, not make complaints against police, [and] police did not take down my statement as I narrated in detail and they abandoned me half of the way. I was raped and now I don’t want to be victimized by the Orissa police. I want a CBI enquiry.”

Since her press conference, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has called for a detailed report on the sequence of events from the district collector and superintendent of police.  

Report from Compass Direct News