29 dead, over 200 injured after Indian Guru's supporters riot over rape conviction

GERMAN PRESS AGENCY - DPA
NEW DELHI
Published 25.08.2017 15:07
Updated 25.08.2017 21:39
Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard near an Indian court in Panchkula, India, Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. (AP Photo)
Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard near an Indian court in Panchkula, India, Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. (AP Photo)

Twenty-nine people were killed and more than 200 others injured Friday when supporters of an Indian guru engaged in violence in the northern town of Panchkula after he was convicted of raping two female disciples, a state official said.

More than 100,000 supporters of Gurmeet Ram Rahim - who heads the Dera Sacha Sauda, which translates as "True Deal Sect" - had gathered near the court premises in Panchkula before the verdict was announced.

As news of the conviction spread, groups of Ram Rahim's followers carried out arson attacks and attacked journalists and police. Television channels whose broadcast vans were not damaged showed rampaging mobs torching cars, buses, two-wheelers and a fire engine.

Speaking outside a hospital Panchkula, Manohar Lal Khattar - chief minister of Haryana, where the town is located - said 29 people had died and 200 others had been injured.

During a press conference, Haryana police chief BS Sandhu said that 28 people had died in Panchkula and one other person had been killed in Sirsa, the town where the sect is headquartered.

Outlining the police operation, Sandhu said that officers had conducted baton charges, fired teargas shells and pellet guns and later used live ammunition against protesters.

There were reports of violence from other areas of Haryana, from neighbouring Punjab state and the Indian capital New Delhi, where two empty train carriages and two buses were set on fire, police said.

Curfew was imposed on Panchkula and several other districts of Haryana and Punjab. Orders were issued prohibiting large gatherings in New Delhi and the satellite city of Noida.

There were reports of a railway station in Muktsar and an income tax office in Mansa - both towns in Punjab - being torched.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the events as "deeply distressing" on Twitter, adding: "I strongly condemn the violence & urge everyone to maintain peace."

"Urged officials to work round the clock to restore normalcy and provide all possible assistance that is required," Modi wrote.

Ram Rahim, 50, was found guilty of sexually exploiting two female disciples in 2002, prosecution lawyer Utsav Bains said. His sentence is expected to be announced on Monday.

The rape allegation was first made by a female disciple in an anonymous letter to then-prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2002, according to India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

The disciple also accused Ram Rahim of raping several other female followers inside the sect's sprawling headquarters in the outskirts of Sirsa.

The Punjab and Haryana high courts directed the CBI to register a sexual exploitation case against Ram Rahim and investigate the case.

CBI officers questioned 18 female disciples, two of whom said they were raped by the guru, who said it was a part of purification rites.

The Dera Sacha Sauda has 60 million supporters, a majority of them in northern Indian states, particularly Punjab and Haryana.

The chief ministers of both states made televised statements appealing to people to remain calm and to maintain peace as did the Indian President Ram Nath Kovind.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was briefed on the situation, federal home secretary Rajiv Mehrishi said. He said the situation in Panchkula was tense but under control.

A prosecution lawyer was quoted as saying by NDTV that Ram Rahim had been taken into custody and had been flown out of Panchkula in a helicopter, but it was not clear where he would be jailed.

The Dera Sacha Sauda was founded in 1948, and the guitar-playing, motorcycle-riding Ram Rahim took over as its leader in 1990, at the age of 23.

The sect recognizes one universal god, respects all religions and promotes campaigns against drug addiction, blood donation drives, tree planting and the rehabilitation of prostitutes.

Ram Rahim has flowing locks, wears blingy outfits, sings at concerts for his followers and has produced and acted in a film called "Messenger of God," where he plays the role of a superhero.

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