Cuttack, May 19: Death-row convict Dara Singh got a new lease of life after Orissa High Court today set aside a CBI court’s verdict saying he could not be held individually responsible for the 1999 murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons.
The division bench of Chief Justice Sujit Barman Roy and Justice Laxmikant Mohapatra also acquitted 11 others who had been sentenced to life in prison by the trial court. They said there was no reliable evidence as far as their identification was concerned.
But it upheld the life sentence on Mahendra Hembram, another convict involved in the burning alive of Staines and his sons, Philip, 10, and Timothy, 6, on the night of January 22 in 1999 as they slept in their station wagon in Manoharpur, a remote village in Keonjhar district.
“There is absolutely no evidence on record that due to individual act of Dara Singh alone the three deceased persons or any one of them died. The eyewitnesses never attributed any particular fatal injury to Dara Singh for which he can be individually responsible,” the high court said in its 106-page order.
“Evidence against all the participants, including Dara Singh, being of identical nature, they were all equally responsible for the three murders. As a matter of fact the evidence against Dara, Mahendra Hembram and all other participants is of the same nature. Therefore, no justification is available from the evidence on record to single out Dara for convicting him alone under Section 302 of (the) IPC,” the judges added.
Dara, who is now in Baripada circle jail in connection with the trial of two murder cases in Mayurbhanj district, smiled when a prison official told him of the high court order. “He was happy though not exactly delirious,” the official told The Telegraph.
Thousands of miles away in Australia, Gladys Staines, the slain missionary’s widow who last July left India with her daughter Esther, refused comment. But sources in the state’s Christian community quoted Gladys, who in March this year was awarded the Padma Shri for her work among leprosy patients in Mayurbhanj, as saying that she had “nothing more to say”.
B.K. Muduli, of the All Orissa United Christian Forum, said the judgment has given Dara a “new lease of life”. “We hope Dara would now be transformed,” Muduli said.
In September 2003, designated CBI judge Mahendranath Patnaik had sentenced Dara to death for individually killing Staines and his sons and simultaneously convicted him for leading the mob that torched the vehicle. The high court today struck off the sentence on the first count and held Dara and Mahendra guilty under the second count.
While acquitting the 11, the bench said the above charges could not be sustained against them because the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they were involved. Those who have been acquitted are Rajat Kumar Das, Renta Hembram, Ojen Hansdah, Umakanta Bhoi, Rabi Soren, Dayanidhi Patra, Mahadeb Mahanta, Harish Mahanta, Thurram Ho, Surath Nayak and Kartik Lohar.
The CBI refused to see the judgment as a setback. “What really matters is that Dara’s conviction has been upheld. Life or death sentence is a discretionary power of the court,” said the agency’s lawyer, S.K. Padhi.
Dara’s lawyer Bana Mohanty said “justice has been done” and added that he would decide soon whether to approach the Supreme Court for Dara and Mahendra’s acquittal.