India – Signs of Witness Intimidation Mount in Orissa

(CDN) NEW DELHI — Due in part to intimidation of witnesses in Kandhamal district, a judge this week granted a change of venue for the trial of men accused of gang-raping a nun during anti-Christian attacks in Orissa in 2008. The trial will be transferred from Baliguda, Kandhamal to Cuttack, near the Orissa state capital of Bhubaneswar. Justice Indrajit Mohanty of the Orissa High Court on Tuesday (March 30) ordered the inter-district transfer of the trial. The nun, Meena Lilita Barwa, had argued that witnesses would be intimidated into refraining from testifying if the trial were held in Kandhamal district. She also argued that Kandhamal’s intimidating atmosphere made it too dangerous for her appear in court there. Christians were hopeful that the transfer would lead the administration to review police and court processes in Kandhamal district. Police have arrested 19 people for allegedly assaulting the nun on Aug. 25, 2008 and parading her half-naked through the streets. Christian leaders have denounced the legal process in the Kandhamal violence, saying not only those witnesses have been threatened and the intimidated but that police investigations have been negligent or corrupt.

At the same time, Fast Track Court I Judge S.K. Das acquitted 20 people persons in three separate cases for lack of evidence. “Witnesses are being coerced, threatened, cajoled and sought to be bribed by murderers and arsonists facing trial,” said Archbishop of Orissa Raphael Cheenath in a statement. Previously he had demanded that the cases of politically powerful persons such as Manoj Pradhan be transferred out of Kandhamal to ensure proper justice. “We are deeply concerned about the high rate of acquittals in the Fast Track Courts,” Cheenath said. “Victims filed 3,232 complaints in the various police stations of Kandhamal. Of these, the police registered cases in only 832 instances.”

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