| Dara Singh being taken to court on Monday. (AFP)
Bhubaneswar, Sept. 15: Dara Singh and the 12 other accused were silent as a designated CBI court here today convicted them of the murder of Graham Staines and his two minor sons .
Khurda district and sessions judge M.. Patnaik, also the designated CBI judge, convicted them under IPC Sections 120, 120(B), 148, 149, 302, 435 and 436 for conspiracy, unlawful assembly, burning of vehicle and house, and murder. The sentence and its quantum will be specified on September 22.
As an unperturbed, khadi kurta-clad Dara was being whisked away to the judicial lock-up, he said: “Chinta nahin (Don’t worry). We will appeal in higher court.” His lawyer, Bana Mohanty, said as much.
About 300 km from the court, at Baripada, Staines’ wife Gladys sounded calm on the phone. “I have full faith in the Indian judiciary. The law of the land has taken its own course. But I have forgiven Dara and others,” she said.
The families of Rajat Kumar Das, Renta Hembram, Mahendra Hembram, Ojen Hansdah, Umakanta Bhoi, Rabi Soren, Dayanidhi Patra, Mahadeb Mahanta, Harish Mahanta, Thurram Ho, Surath Nayak and Kartik Lohar, however, were crushed.
Kartik’s mother Laxmi wept inconsolably outside the court as her son was driven away to Choudwar jail. She had spent Rs 1.5 lakh on the legal fight. “How will I live if my son is sent to jail' How can I appeal in higher courts' He has been framed by my Christian neighbours,” she cried.
Ojen, whose three daughters, a son and a sister in Manoharpur felt let down, said: “We are not satisfied with the verdict. We have been framed by the CBI.”
Of the 18 people the CBI chargesheeted on June 19, 1999, three are absconding. Among the remaining 15, Aniruddha Dandapat, alias Andha Nayak, was acquitted today for want of evidence. Thirteen-year-old Chenchu Hansdah had been sentenced in 2000 to 14 years in jail.
Today’s conviction more or less brought the curtain down on 31 months of trial that began on March 1, 2001. “We are very happy with this verdict,” CBI counsel K. Sudhakar said.
Australian high commission consul Mark Webslor, who was in court to convey the verdict to his office, said: “Our government attaches a lot of importance to the case.” Staines was an Australian missionary who had spent over 30 years working for leprosy patients in Baripada.
He and his sons, Philip and Timothy, were burnt alive in their station wagon in Keonjhar district’s Manoharpur village on the intervening night of January 22-23, 1999.
The All Orissa United Christian Forum commended the judiciary while emphasising that Christians had forgiven the main accused, Dara.
“The Indian judiciary has demonstrated that one can depend on the fact that the guilty will not go unpunished,” said a forum statement issued here.
The government, alive to the likely reaction to the verdict, posted a police team at the murder site and the church in Manoharpur. Police officials in Keonjhar and Mayurbhanj said security had also been beefed up around other churches in the region.