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Indian court intervenes in trial for murder of missionary & sons

OXFORD, England (BP)–The much-delayed trial of the man accused of killing an Australian missionary and his sons more than two years ago has resumed after the Orissa High Court ordered the process speeded up, according to a Newsroom-online.com report.

Rabindra Kumar Pal, also known as Dara Singh, is one of 11 people accused in the deaths of Graham Staines and his sons, Philip, 10, and Timothy, 6. A mob of militant Hindus set afire the car in which the three were sleeping outside a leprosy hospital in Manoharpur village in the eastern state of Orissa. Singh is accused of leading the brutal attack on Jan. 23, 1999. He was arrested one year later.

A 13-year-old boy already has been convicted for his role in the murders. Chenchu Hansda was sentenced to life imprisonment and has appealed to Indian President K.R. Narayanan for amnesty.

Singh also is a suspect in more than a dozen criminal cases, including the deaths of Muslim trader S.K. Rehman in Padiabeda in August 1999 and of Catholic priest Arul Doss in Jamubani in September 1999, both in Orissa’s Mayurbhanj district. His trial in the Staines deaths was scheduled to begin Dec. 1 but was delayed by defense motions asking for more time to prepare, the illness of a judge and a lawyers’ strike over a decision by the Orissa state government to impose a tax on certain professionals. The trial did not begin until March 1 and has proceeded slowly while Singh is tried simultaneously on other crimes.

The sluggish pace of the murder trial prompted India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to seek a court ruling to expedite the process. The Orissa High Court in April ordered that Singh’s trial in the Staines deaths should continue for the first 20 days of each month beginning in May, with the remaining days set aside for simultaneous trials in which he is the defendant.

In one of those cases Singh was acquitted in March by a Mayurbhanj district magistrate of charges that he and others blocked a truck carrying 36 cattle at Asanbani Chak on Aug. 16, 1998, freed the cattle and set the truck on fire. The incident made Singh a household name among tribals in the Mahanta community. Singh and his associates were acquitted last year in a similar incident that occurred at Bhairanibeda, also in Mayurbhanj district, in early 1998. In both cases, witnesses failed to identify Singh in court as the person who robbed them. Authorities said Singh targeted Muslim traders carrying cattle to Calcutta for slaughter. Cows are sacred in India.

In the Staines case, a 13-year-old prosecution witness, Singhu Marandi, told the court that she was in Manoharpur with her mother for an annual dance festival the night that the missionary and his sons were killed. She testified that they heard a blast and saw two boys, Chenchu Hansda and Ojen Hansda, near the scene of the murders. She said the boys told them that the people in the vehicle were dead and that Marandi and her mother also would be killed if they identified anyone at the scene.

A few weeks after the Staines killings, James Massey and K. Neminath, a fact-finding team for the National Commission for Minorities, described the gruesome deaths as preplanned and linked with disturbances in other parts of the country where Christians had become the main targets. Massey said the Manoharpur attack was the worst of those incidents. “Staines was non-controversial and no forced conversion had taken place in the village, as alleged by a section of the people,” Massey insisted. “It seemed that there had been some definite purpose of killing Staines that has to be further investigated.”

Excerpts of Singh’s interrogation by police made public during the trial indicated that upon his arrival in Orissa he became aware of Muslim traders who were selling cattle for slaughter and heard reports of mass conversions of Hindus to Christianity. “Thus I developed hatred towards Muslims and Christians,” Singh reportedly told police. “I used to rescue unfortunate cows from the clutches of Muslim butchers.”

Of Graham Staines and complaints that he was converting tribals by force — claims that Christian leaders and some government officials refute — Singh said, “I wanted to teach him a lesson, not kill him. The event was beyond my wildest imagination.”

Singh contended that he watched Staines being beaten to death and then his car being set ablaze but insisted that he did not know the boys were inside. “I felt unhappy about their death,” he said, according to the police transcript.

Meanwhile, a global campaign to free Dara Singh is gaining ground among supporters who say he is a prisoner of injustice. An Internet site campaigning for his freedom calls Singh the champion of the poor and the tribals in Orissa, and blames his arrest on an international conspiracy.

“It will be interesting to see how the case ends,” observed human rights activist Raj Kumar. “More than being a killing of a missionary, what is [abhorrent] is the way the mob killed a man and his two small sons. The guilty have to be punished.”
Used by permission of Newsroom-online.com.

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