A special Central Bureau of Investigation court in Panchkula on Thursday sentenced self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and three others to life imprisonment for the murder of a journalist over 16 years ago.
The Dera Sacha Sauda chief and the three others -- Nirmal Singh, Kuldeep Singh and Krishan Lal -- appeared before the court through video conferencing.
"All four have been sentenced to life imprisonment," CBI counsel H P S Verma said.
The court has imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 on each convict, he said, adding that it has also awarded three-year sentence to Nirmal Singh and Krishan Lal under the Arms Act along with a fine of Rs 5,000 each.
Both sentences would run concurrently, Verma said.
On January 11, special CBI Court judge Jagdeep Singh had convicted the four men for the murder of journalist Ram Chander Chhatrapati in 2002.
All the four were convicted under Section 302 (murder) and 120 B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code.
Ram Rahim appeared through video conferencing from Sunaria jail in Rohtak, where he is already serving a 20-year-sentence in a rape case.
The three others appeared from Ambala jail.
"The life sentence of Ram Rahim will start after he completes his 20-year jail term in the rape case," said the CBI counsel, stating that it was a law under Section 427 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
As per Section 427 of the CrPC, 1973, when a person already undergoing a sentence of imprisonment is sentenced on a subsequent conviction to imprisonment for life, such imprisonment shall commence at the expiration of the imprisonment to which he has been previously sentenced.
The CBI had sought maximum punishment for the convicts, he said, adding that the counsels of Ram Rahim pleaded for minimum punishment in the murder case.
The arguments between CBI and defence counsels on the quantum of sentence lasted for almost one and half hours and the sentence was pronounced at 6.30 pm, Verma said.
The journalist was killed in Haryana's Sirsa in October 2002 after his newspaper published an anonymous letter alleging sexual exploitation of women by the godman at the Dera headquarters in the same town.
Ram Rahim was named as the main conspirator in the case. Chhatrapati's family approached the Punjab and Haryana high court in 2003, seeking the transfer of the case to the CBI.
The investigation was later handed over to the CBI which filed a charge sheet in July 2007.
In August 2017, the sect leader was brought to the Panchkula court, where the CBI court judge pronounced the verdict in the rape case.
At that time, violence had erupted in Panchkula and Sirsa in Haryana following the conviction of Ram Rahim, leaving over 40 people dead and scores of people injured.
The judge had later travelled to Sunaria jail, where Ram Rahim Singh was lodged, to pronounce the sentence.
Elaborate security arrangements were made across Haryana and parts of Punjab on Thursday ahead of the pronouncement of punishment.
However, the situation remained peaceful, officials said.
'Life of idealistic journalist snuffed out'
The life of an idealistic journalist was snuffed out as he dared to highlight the activities of a powerful Dera head, said the CBI court while awarding life sentence to Ram Rahim and three others.
However, the court said that this case does not fall in the category of rarest of rare cases for which death penalty is awarded.
'Life of an innocent citizen and an upright, idealistic journalist was snuffed out simply because he dared to write about the activities of a powerful head of some Dera,' the judge, Jagdeep Singh, wrote in his order.
Noting that the mobocracy and violent attacks on innocent citizens have no place in a democracy which is governed by rule of law and sound Constitutional norms, the court said the pillars of democracy cannot be allowed to be crushed.
'In the murder case, the accused persons have been convicted for entering into a criminal conspiracy to eliminate Ram Chander Chhatarpati and for committing murder of deceased Ram Chander Chhatarpati, a journalist based in Sirsa, who used to publish daily eveninger named 'Poora Sach',' the judge wrote.
'Known as 'fourth estate' in a modern state, press is ideally the watchdog of the democracy. Because of its vast potential for influencing the public opinion, it is generally acknowledged that it has the power to make or mar the career of any individual or organization,' the order stated.
Journalism is a serious business, which ignites the desire to seek and report the truth and as such facilitates a better society and world, the judge wrote in his order.
'There is little glamour to the job, no big reward and in the traditional mould it is predominantly a public service in the sincerest sense,' the order stated.
The judge also observed that the acts of convict (Gurmeet Ram Rahim) are abhorrent, and two distinct and grave crimes have been committed by the convict.
Ram Rahim is undergoing a 20-year-sentence in Sunaria jail in Rohtak in a rape case.
During final arguments on the quantum of sentence in the murder case, the CBI sought capital punishment citing it to be a 'planned and cold-blooded' murder.
Whereas the defence counsel sought leniency, pleading social work done by Ram Rahim and claimed that cases against him were the handiwork of forces which opposed welfare activities done by the Dera Sacha Sauda.
Dera chief will remember his crime every day, says journalist's daughter
They were demanding the death penalty but the life sentence awarded to Ram Rahim Singh has brought a measure of relief to members of the slain journalist's family.
"Though we were demanding capital punishment but this sentence is no less than the death sentence as he will not be able to come out of the jail for his entire life. He will be behind bars till his last breath," Shreyasi Chhatrapati, the journalist's daughter, said.
"Gurmeet will now remember his crime every day and then weep while being in jail," she said. "We are satisfied with the quantum of punishment pronounced by the court."
Her brother Anshul Chhatrapati also expressed relief.
"We are relieved today with the pronouncement of the sentence,” said the 38-year-old who fought a 16-year battle for justice.
Both thanked the judiciary and expressed gratitude for the efforts of the Central Bureau of Investigation and other well-wishers.