Monday, April 21, 2008

Sanction to prosecute VHP activists refused

JAIPUR: The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Rajasthan has refused sanction to prosecute 14 Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists, accused of attacking a Christian priest here a year ago. It has ordered the closure of police investigation while asking the trial court to accept a previous charge sheet as valid.

A gang of 20 VHP activists, led by its Jaipur unit general secretary Virendra Singh Ravana, allegedly attacked Pastor Walter Masih in his prayer room – situated barely one km away from the Chief Minister’s official residence here – on April 29 last and ransacked his house. The priest was allegedly thrashed with lathis and rods and left profusely bleeding. Police arrested 14 accused and registered a case against them under six sections of the Indian Penal Code, relating to rioting, causing hurt, house trespass and causing damage.

The prosecution filed a charge sheet against the accused in the trial court in August 2007, but informed the court that the charge sheet was incomplete as the probe under some other charges was pending. Police added IPC Sections 153-A (hate speech), 295-A (insulting a religion or religious beliefs) and 505(3) (offensive statements made at a place of worship) to the charges against the accused during investigation and sought the State government’s sanction for prosecution as required by Section 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code.

Meanwhile, the accused were released on bail by the Rajasthan High Court after its denial, first by the trial court and later by the Sessions Court, on the basis of prima facie evidence produced against them. The case in the court of Judicial Magistrate No. 16, Jaipur city, has since been pending for arguments on charges.

The in-charge of Sodala police station has now informed the trial court that the State government has refused sanction for prosecution of the accused under the new IPC sections and the investigation in the case has been closed in compliance with an order of the Superintendent of Police. Police have requested the court to treat the previous charge sheet as final and valid even though the government’s order has not specified any ground for denial of sanction. Interestingly, the District Magistrate is empowered to give sanction under Sec. 505(3) without referring it to the government, while the latter’s sanction is needed for prosecution under Sec. 153-A and 295-A.

Civil rights groups here on Sunday registered a strong protest against the government’s decision, saying it was “patently illegal” and aimed at protecting the criminal elements of the VHP by ensuring that they faced trial under mild sections of IPC. They accused the BJP-led government of pursuing a policy to intimidate religious minorities. People’s Union for Civil Liberties State president Prem Krishna Sharma told journalists that this “fascist approach” of the ruling BJP was dangerous in view of the Assembly elections due this year. “With the elections coming nearer, there are clear indications that the BJP will openly threaten the minorities and give a free hand to its rank and file to attack them.”

While Pastor Walter Masih demanded justice, the activist groups pointed out that the government had followed a “communal pattern” by giving prompt sanction in a case against Father Thomas of Emmanuel Mission in 2006 and withdrawing the case against VHP leader Praveen Togadia in 2007. The government also withdrew in 2004 more than 250 criminal cases, in which several Ministers were involved.

PUCL lawyer A.K. Jain said the activists would take recourse to the Right to Information Act to demand that the government spell out reasons for denying sanction to prosecute the VHP activists and lodge a complaint with the Governor S.K. Singh. The civil rights activists will also organise a rally on the issue before the case comes up in the court for the next hearing on April 25.

(The Hindu 21/4/08)