District and Session Judge Mahendranath Patnaik on Monday afternoon handed down the death sentence to Dara Singh and life imprisonment to 12 of his associates in the Staines murder case. The verdict was delivered amidst tight security in a Bhubaneswar court.
Dara Singh will not appeal before a higher court, his lawyer Banabihari Mohanty told reporters late in the evening after having earlier said that all of them would go in for an appeal. The Dara Sena, one of the several outfits that claim to propagate his ideals, has given a bandh call in Mayurbhanj district on Tuesday.
Besides Dara, those convicted and sentenced were Rajat Kumar Das alias Dipu Das, Mahendra Hembram, Renta Hembram, Ojen Hansda, Kartik Lohar, Rabi Soren, Dayanidhi Patra, Mahadev Mahanta, Harish Mahanta, Thuram Ho, Surath Nayak and Umakanta Bhoi.
Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burnt to death by a mob on the night of January 22, 1999 in Manoharpur village in Keonjhar district, about 400km from Bhubaneswar. After a year-long search, the police dramatically nabbed Dara on the night of January 31, 2000 in a forest, though he later claimed to have surrendered.
After a trial lasting one-and-a-half years, the judge had on September 15 pronounced Dara Singh and 12 others guilty of the crime while acquitting another accused Anirudhha Dandapat for lack of evidence.
The judge sentenced the 12 persons to life imprisonment under section 120 (B), three years rigorous imprisonment under section 148 and seven years RI under section 435 read with section 149. They were also sentenced to life imprisonment under section 436 read with section 149, and under section 302.
One of the chargesheeted, Chenchu Hansda, being a juvenile, was tried in a juvenile court and is currently in a probation home.
Dara Singh, who was tried separately, was handed the death sentence under section 302. The court said the sentence was subject to confirmation by the high court.
The case had come under intense media scrutiny considering that foreign citizens and the issue of religious conversions were involved. The then president, K R Narayanan, had described the incident as one that belonged to the world's inventory of black deeds.
However, CBI Superintendent of Police P Lal, who probed the case, said there was no pressure on him from any quarter at any point of time during the investigation.
In the morning during a 30-minute hearing hearing, the judge heard submissions by a team of defence lawyers as well as the CBI's counsels on the quantum of punishments in the case. After hearing the arguments, the judge adjourned the matter till 1630 IST.
All the 13 convicts, including Dara, were present in the court when their counsels pleaded for lesser punishment considering their poor economic background, family problems and the condition of their old and ailing parents. Mohanty told rediff.com, "They are innocent tribals. The court should have pardoned them."
Mohanty said Dara Singh's 85-year-old father was bed-ridden and undergoing treatment at a hospital in Noida near Delhi while his only brother is a psychiatric patient. He claimed that Dara had a good image in the Karanjia area of Mayurbhanj district.
Arguing that it was not the rarest of rare case to justify the death sentence, the counsel pleaded that lesser punishment be awarded.
He said most of the convicts were tribals, who were the sole breadwinners for their families. They had wives and small children who had no source of income. Other defence counsels Gyana Acharya and Rabi Patnaik also pleaded for a lesser sentence for the convicts.
CBI counsel K Sudhakar, citing three apex court rulings, argued that this was a fit case for awarding the extreme penalty. He said the gravity of the crime should be taken into account while awarding punishment, not the economic condition and family problems of the convicts.