By BosNewsLife Asia Service
BHUBANESWAR/NEW DELHI, (BosNewsLife)-- Seven Indian Christians were preparing Friday, October 18, to appeal lifetime sentences handed down for the murder of a prominent Hindu leader, which sparked India's deadliest anti-Christian riots on record.
"We will appeal, before the High Court," confirmed Charles Irudayam, priest and secretary of the Commission 'Justice and Peace' of the Episcopal Conference.
The August 2008 murder of Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati, though claimed by Maoists, was the start of Hindu attacks against Christians in India's eastern state of Odisha, formerly known as Orissa.
More than 100 people were killed, some 600 Christian villages looted, 5,600 homes torched, and over 54 thousand people displaced in the violence, according to church estimates and aid workers.
Therefore, "The conviction is paradoxical: Christians in [Odisha] are still victims, not murderers, and many of them are still waiting for justice for the devastating violence they suffered," argued Irudayam in a statement distributed by Catholic news agency Agenzia Fides.
A lawyer for the seven agreed. "There was no evidence against my clients and I would advise them to move to the high court," attorney Bijay Mishra told reporters.
While the appeal is underway "the seven, remain in prison and the suffering of their families continues," priest Irudayam added. "Furthermore: who will pay the lawyers? And who will take care of their families and children? An adequate compensation will be needed", he said.
Prosecutors sought the death penalty, but the court in Odisha's capital Bhubaneswar handed down life sentences instead, trial observers said. They also received fines of 10,000 Indian rupee each ($164), nearly two average monthly salaries in India.
The seven convicted Christians were identified as Bijay Kumar Sunseth, Gornath Chalanseth, Budhadeb Nayak, Bhaskar Sunamajhi, Durjo Sunamajhi, Munda Badmajhi and Sanatana Badmajhi.
An eighth defendant, Pulari Rama Rao, a leader in India's communist Naxalite movement, also was sentenced to life in prison. It was not immediately clear whether he would appeal the sentence as well.
The eight were among 14 suspects accused of murdering the Hindu leader and four others at a school in the rural heart of Odisha, Indian media said.
An angry mob of about 50 people surrounded the school, and several opened fire, according to investigators.
Indian media said one of the 14 suspects, not among the eight sentenced on October 3, is also in custody, but five others remain at large.
Saraswati was a prominent leader in the Hindu nationalist political party VHP who condemned Christians attempting to convert Hindus. He was also a Hindu monk and activist for the rights of India's many indigenous, and impoverished, Hindu tribes.
The Christians killed Saraswati because he was converting Christians to Hinduism, prosecution lawyer Bhagaban Mohanty told the Indo-Asian News Service after the verdict.
"The judge convicted them purely on the basis of circumstantial evidence and the deposition of witnesses," the news agency quoted Mohanty as saying.
Prosecutors sought the death penalty but the additional district and sessions judge of Kandhamal, Rajendra Kumar Tosh handed down life sentences instead, trial observers said.
Sajan George, who leads the influential advocacy group 'Global Council of Indian Christians' called the conviction of the Christians "a heartbreaking story for modern India."
He said the seven "already lost five precious years of their lives in prison without a fair trial. And thousands of other Christians who survived the most brutal wave of attacks, are still living in fear."
Ironically, six days after the sentences were handed down, the same court acquitted five defendants accused of burning down a house during the 2008 violence that followed Saraswati's murder, citing a lack of evidence, Christians said.
George has accused prosecutors and judges of "intentionally delaying the trial".
He and other Christian leaders have expressed concerns that the judiciary and other local authorities are influenced by Hindu militants and nationalists who oppose the Christian minority in this predominantly Hindu nation.
Hindu groups have also expressed concerns about the spread of Christianity among Dalits, deemed the 'lowest caste' in India's ancient system of Hinduism.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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