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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

At least 12 people killed in clashes after Indian guru is found guilty of rape

Crowds of supporters enraged by the verdict attacked TV journalists and media vehicles, breaking windshields and broadcasting equipment

At least 12 people were killed in rioting in north India on Friday after a court convicted the flamboyant leader of a quasi-religious sect of raping two of his followers.

The court in Panchkula announced a guilty verdict after hearing closing arguments in the 15-year-old case against the guru, who calls himself Saint Dr Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan.

Ram Rahim Singh — who had denied the charges of raping the two women at his ashram in 2002 — was taken into custody and would be housed in a jailhouse in nearby Rohtak in Haryana state until his sentencing on August 28, prosecutor HPS Verma said.

Clashes between followers and police erupted outside court after the Indian spiritual guru who calls himself Saint Dr Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, centre, was found guilty of raping two women in 2002. Tsering Topgyal / AP Photo
Clashes between followers and police erupted outside court after the Indian spiritual guru who calls himself Saint Dr Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, centre, was found guilty of raping two women in 2002. Tsering Topgyal / AP Photo

Enraged by the verdict, his followers set fire to government buildings, and attacked police and TV journalists, smashing the windshields of media vans and breaking broadcast equipment.

The violence so far had left 12 dead and more than 100 injured, according to Dr VK Bansal, chief medical officer at the state-run Panchkula Civil Hospital.

More than 15,000 Indian police and paramilitary soldiers had been deployed to patrol the town as tens of thousands of followers camped there overnight to await the court's ruling.

Angry mobs also attacked police in the town of Sirsa, where the guru's ashram is located, according to a local police control room.

As news of the verdict spread, police in the neighbouring state of Punjab said a mob had set fire to a train station in Mukhtar district.

The guru's Dera Sacha Sauda sect claims to have some 50 million followers and campaigns for vegetarianism and against drug addiction. It has also taken up social causes such as organising weddings for poor couples.

Such sects have huge followings in India and it is not unusual for leaders to have small, heavily armed private militias protecting them.

When the guru left his ashram in Sirsa early on Friday for the hearing, he was accompanied by a 100-vehicle convoy. Police had put up heavy metal barricades topped with barbed wire along main roads in the town, a quiet residential suburb of Chandigarh, which is the common capital of Haryana and Punjab states.

Mounted police monitored crowds near the courthouse. Helicopters whirred overhead.

"We are prepared to deal with any situation, but are confident that adequate measures have been put in place," said BS Sandhu, a top Haryana police official, before the verdict was read.

Army soldiers planned to march later on Friday through the streets to garner a sense of security, Mr Sandhu said.

Authorities ordered internet and mobile phone services shut down across both Haryana and Punjab as a precaution.

Train services were cancelled through the area, leading to rail delays across north India. Schools and colleges were closed.

The case was tried in a special court run by India's top agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Such cases have prompted public violence in the past.

Clashes in 2007 between the Dera Sacha Sauda followers and members of the Sikh faith left at least three people dead in north India.

In 2014, six people were killed when followers of another religious leader, guru Rampal, fought pitched battles with police who were attempting to arrest him for contempt of court after he repeatedly failed to appear for hearings in connection with a murder trial.

In a televised appeal on Thursday, Ram Rahim Singh had asked his supporters not to resort to violence, but some said they would not tolerate a verdict that went against their leader.

"I consider guru-ji to be only next to God," farmer Malkit Singh said as he squatted on the ground in a Panchkula park, saying Ram Rahim Singh had cured him of his addiction to drugs.

"There is a God above," he said. "Our guru-ji follows the path of truth."