Release of Kandhamal’s seven innocents jailed for eleven years sparks joyous celebrations after journalist Anto Akkara’s spirited campaign
Journalist Anto Akkara has carried on a spirited campaign for years, and all the hard work and appeals for their release finally set the wheels rolling in motion to get Kandhamal’s seven innocents free. On International Human Rights day December 10th, a Youtube video was released as well revealing the hard work going on behind the scenes for their release.
Journalist Anto Akkara says that the innocents were behind bars for 11 years due to political fraud, and the illiterate Christians even transformed the jail into a prayer chapel trusting in God.
Journalist Anto Akkara who has carried on a spirited campaign for their release and acquittal recounts the 14-year-old saga of torment, faith, and hope for the afflicted.
Journalist Anto Akkara worked hard to garner online support. He faced disappointment and resistance along the way and even indifference at times when it took six months for the petition signatures to cross the thousand mark.
However, the success of Akkara’s campaign shot up as updates of his campaign used to reach the jail immediately where the innocents in jail and their families were following him on social media. The chief minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, and other distinguished people even got a copy of his book, “Who Killed Swami Lakshmananda?”
The Supreme Court finally ordered bail for the seven moved by the appeal made by the Catholic Church. The first to get bail was Gorma in May 2019. Akkara was touched by Gorma’s statement saying, “I was 10 percent Christian when I went to jail, but now I am 100% Christian”.
It is said that hospitals and prisons are the most sacred sanctuaries buzzing with prayers!
When the Supreme Court order arrived for the bail of the seven, Akkara was at an international conference in Hungary, but he rushed back to New Delhi and reached Kandhamal. He says, “When the three in Balliguda Jail, Durjo, Bhaskar, and Munda came out on December 3, 2019, I was thrilled but sad to say no Christian was there to receive the innocents walking to freedom after eleven years.”
He went on to say, “Still, God intervened to ensure live telecast from Balliguda Jail nationally by Zee TV and Oriya channels coordinated by a Hindu activist friend.
Two months later, Akkara was inspired to take the seven innocents to Bengaluru at great risk to himself to present them before the assembly of 200 Catholic Bishops. On reaching Bengaluru, he was a bit worried that there was only one confirmed program.
However, his deep faith in God led him to pray and he says doors started opening in quick succession and a dozen programs came up in eight days. The seven had a heroes reception in Bengaluru compensating for the eleven hard years in prison. They were given a grand reception at Christ University auditorium and taken to all the exotic great spots in the city, taken to the altars of St. Patrick’s Church and St. Anthony’s Friary
What Happened in Kandhamal in 2008?
The Kandhamal district of Odisha had been undergoing religious tensions for decades but it wasn’t until Christmas 2007 that it first witnessed organized violence. Some of the worst anti-Christian riots in Indian history stemmed from the events of August 23, 2008, when, as Hindus celebrated Janmashtami or the birth of Hindu Lord Krishna, their star leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was killed.
Hindu extremists rounded on Christian targets after calling the murder a Christian conspiracy. Uncontrolled violence that continued for seven weeks killed more than 100 people, (some unofficial sources say 500 Christians were killed judging from the number of charred bodies) and left 56,000 homeless, and destroyed 6,000 houses and 300 churches.
Seven innocent Christians – six of them illiterates – have been languishing in jail since they were arrested on the charge of murdering Swami Laxmanananda though they kept denying they had anything to do with the murder.
Then suddenly, a shocking verdict convicting the seven Christians and sentencing them to life imprisonment was delivered abruptly by a newly appointed third judge in 2013 after the previous two judges were suddenly transferred. . The seven Christians, including a mentally disabled boy, were sentenced to life imprisonment. Their names were Bhaskar Sunamajhi, Buddhadev Nayak, Durjo Sunamajhi, Munda Badamajhi, Sanatan Badamajhi, plus Gornath Chalanseth and Bijay Sanseth, who were freed earlier.
They have throughout pleaded their innocence but their bail applications had been repeatedly rejected by Odisha High Court. Their appeals against conviction by subversion of the judicial system have now dragged on for more than five years in Odisha High Court.
Biranchi N. Mishra, the judge who presided over the final two years of the trial, was suddenly transferred in 2013 before he was able to deliver his verdict.
He had repeatedly questioned prosecutors over why people who appeared to be innocent were in detention and even recorded that the conduct of one investigating officer, Santosh Kumar Patnaik, was “deplorable.”
The shocking verdict convicting the seven Christians and sentencing them to life imprisonment was delivered abruptly by a newly appointed third judge in October 2013.
Surprisingly, two years later, the same police officers who had ensured the conviction of the innocent Christians told Justice Naidu’s Commission of Inquiry that the much-trumpeted “Christian conspiracy” theory was baseless.
Human rights activists, social workers, journalists, and church leaders have contested the convictions of the Christians, claiming it was based on a conspiracy theory that lacked evidence.
During that time, the Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, whose archdiocese covers the riot-hit Kandhamal area, told the news: “We are indeed happy and rejoicing this historic day, but at the same time I feel shame that we could not able to get justice for our fellow brethren who have been innocent all along.
“Whenever I meet with their family members back in their village — I was there again only last week — their wives and children always ask me when justice will be done. I have always assured them that one day we will get justice.
“While visiting their families, I could feel their pain and anguish, but I was helpless, other than trying to give them hope, but today we all are happy that the Almighty has listened to our prayer and fulfilled it.”
Earlier, A.C. Michael, a former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, whose organization Alliance Defending Freedom has battled for the defendants down the years, also had mixed feelings about the belated granting of bail.
“It is really sad that today we Christians are feeling happy for obtaining bail for seven innocents who were convicted without any proper trial on false allegations of killing Swamy Lakshmananda,” he said.
“These seven innocents have spent 10 priceless years of their lives away from their spouses and children. Also, think of the children who had to face day-to-day harassment.”
At that time, Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), said: “The trial court convicted the seven accused and sentenced them to life imprisonment on the basis of a fabricated Christian conspiracy theory despite hardly any credible evidence brought before the court.”
The GCIC has also worked tirelessly for the accused from the very beginning. It has staged protests with many victims, including several widows of those killed, in front of parliament in New Delhi and in other cities so that people throughout India “could grasp the extent of this tragedy,” said George.
After the Odisha High Court rejected the bail applications of these seven a second time in Dec 2018, they moved to the Supreme Court of India which granted bail to them, facilitating their release in December 2019 after eleven years behind bars.
However, the appeal of the seven innocents against their questionable conviction has been pending before the Odisha High Court for over six years.
They had urged the:
• Chief Justice, Supreme Court Of India
• Chairman, National Human Rights Commission
• The President of India
• Chief Justice, Odisha High Court to take note of their case.
It is with great joy after all the appeals, pleas, and hard work and even the book by Journalist Anto Akkara to portray their innocence that the seven are finally released and this is sparking rejoicing of Christians all over India with great relief because the innocents who were imprisoned for eleven years without evidence sentenced to life imprisonment on flimsy grounds are now freed.
This is Anto Akkara’s YouTube channel where he shares this victory story.
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