The Jharkhand High Court granted bail to a priest arrested from Burudih village three years ago for abduction and gang-rape case.
“I am happy to inform you that (Jesuit Father) Alphonse Aind, accused in the Kochang case, has been granted bail by the Jharkhand High Court,” says a message from Auxiliary Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas of Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state in India.
On May 17, 2019, Jesuit Father Alphonse Aind was convicted and sentenced along with five others to life imprisonment and seven more years of hard labour by a lower court in Khunti District.
A press release from the All Christians Media Cell quoted Father Aind that he was innocent.
Bishop Mascarenhas thanked Advocate Anil Kumar and the team involved in the legal battle, saying, “We are also grateful to all who supported Father Alphonse during these difficult days with prayers."
Church officials and social activists say that all charges against the Jesuit priest were fabricated amid a hostile atmosphere generated against Christians by hostile Hindu hardliners since 2014.
Social observers and activists maintain that Father Alphonse and others from the Kochang mission were pawns in a 'political chess game' by the then State government to subdue a growing tribal land rights movement in the Kochang area.
Kochang was the epicenter of the 'Pathalgarhi movement' in Jharkhand that encouraged the indigenous people to assert their traditional and constitutional rights.
"Pathalgadi is a phenomenon that has swept across Adivasi areas in Jharkhand and neighbouring states, in which villagers erect stone slabs on which they inscribe provisions of the constitution. The stone slab symbolizes the messianic reverence of a document whose promises of empowerment, villagers say, have been repeatedly broken by governments over the years," says journalist Javed Iqbal
The movement was a response to the systemic alienation of tribal lands favoring mining corporations in Jharkhand.
Responding to the news, Sister Maria Nirmalini, president of the Conference of Religious in India (CRI), said that the bail was “a big relief for Father Aind" and that there was a need "to keep our hopes alive in the judiciary.”
The Apostolic Carmel nun expressed a hope that the "real culprits be punished.”
Kochang, an area dominated by the Munda tribe, is the first Jesuit parish in Jharkhand, started by Father Augustus Stockmann, the pioneering Catholic missionary of Chhotanagpur plateau.
On June 19, 2018, an 11-member team from “Asha Kiran," a rehabilitation centre run by the Ursuline sisters at Fudi Village, visited the Kochang marketplace to stage a street play against human trafficking. Since some of them were Christians, they visited the mission school.
Six men on motorcycles came and forcibly took five of the women to a forest about 7-8 km away and raped them at gunpoint. They also attacked some men, who were part of the street play team, and abducted two. Police claim the men were left on the edges of the forest. The gang then moved inside the forest and raped the women.
Father Aind was the parish priest of Sacred Heart Church and in charge of Stockmann Memorial Middle School at the time.
Two days later, the police took in Father Aind, the two nuns who brought the team to Kochang, and two teachers for interrogation. They were released a day later, but the priest was arrested on June 23 for abetment of the crime.
The prosecution made a case for the priest's involvement in the rape conspiracy.
“Even though he had a mobile phone, he did not inform anyone, including the police, that the women had been kidnapped. He took no action after the survivors were brought back after being raped. The evidence produced by us in the court convinced the court,” the lawyer said.
The district court convicted the six of the crime on May 8 under various sections of the Indian Penal Code. One remains at large among the eight accused, and another, a minor, was sent to juvenile court.
According to a report in the Wire based on an interview with a survivor, "The local press also reported that Father Alphonso Aind of the R.C. Mission school at Kochang had told the women not to report the kidnapping and gang rape to the police. But according to (the survivor), they had not spoken to him at all after the incident."
The case is being heard on appeal before the Jharkhand High Court
Father Alphonse Aind joined the Ranchi province of the Society of Jesus in 1992 was ordained a priest in 2007.
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