Staines Case: SC Denies Death Penalty to Dara Singh

New Delhi
Staines Case: SC Denies Death Penalty to Dara Singh
Sanjib Mukherjee
Staines Case: SC Denies Death Penalty to Dara Singh
Dara Singh, convicted for burning alive Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons in January 1999, today escaped death penalty with the Supreme Court ruling that the crime was not "rarest of rare" and upheld the life sentence awarded to him.

"In the case on hand, though Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burnt to death while they were sleeping inside a station wagon at Manoharpur, the intention was to teach a lesson to Graham Staines about his religious activities, namely, converting poor tribals to Christianity," the court said.

Dismissing CBI's plea for death penalty to Singh, a bench of justices P Sathasivam and B S Chauhan endorsed the Orissa High Court's finding that his crime did not fall under the rarest of rare category.

In its 76-page judgement, the court came out strongly against the practice of conversion.

"It is undisputed that there is no justification for interfering in someone's belief by way of 'use of force', provocation, conversion, incitement or upon a flawed premise that one religion is better than the other," it said.

On May 19, 2005, the Orissa High Court had commuted to life imprisonment the death penalty imposed by the sessions court on Singh for the murder of Staines and his sons -- Philip, 10, and Timothy, 6. Along with Dara, his accomplice Mahendra Hembram was convicted in the case.

The Staines family was burnt alive in Keonjhar district in Orissa. Staines had worked with leprosy patients in Orissa for 30 years. He was sleeping with his sons on a cold January night when a mob in Manoharpur village poured petrol over his car parked in front of the village church and torched it.

They tried to escape but the mob of about 50 people allegedly prevented them.

Singh had filed an appeal challenging his conviction and the life sentence awarded to him. The appeals were admitted by the apex court in October 2005.

"In a country like ours where discrimination on the ground of caste or religion is a taboo, taking lives of persons belonging to another caste or religion is bound to have a dangerous and reactive effect on the society at large," the court said.

"It strikes at the very root of the orderly society which the founding fathers of our Constitution dreamt of," the bench added, while upholding the conviction and entailing life term also to Hembram, a native of Keonjhar.

"Our concept of secularism is that the State will have no religion. The State shall treat all religions and religious groups equally and with equal respect without in any manner interfering with their individual right of religion, faith and worship," the bench said.

"We also conclude with the hope that Mahatma Gandhi's vision of religion playing a positive role in bringing India's numerous religion and communities into an integrated prosperous nation be realised by way of equal respect for all religions," the bench said.

It recalled former President K R Narayanan's remark which attributed India's unity to "a tradition of tolerance, which is at once a pragmatic concept for living together and a philosophical concept of finding truth and goodness in every religion".

The CBI had sent up for trial a total of 14 accused, including a minor, who was tried separately by a juvenile court for the gruesome killings on January 22-23, 1999.

The rest 13 were tried by an additional session judge at Khurda in Keonjhar district of Orissa, which had awarded death penalty to Singh and life term to others in September 2003. Singh had links with Hindu right-wing outfit Bajrang Dal.

The Orissa High Court, however, on May 19, 2005, had commuted the death penalty awarded to Singh to life imprisonment, while upholding life term for Hembram.

The high court had also acquitted 11 others who had been awarded life terms by the trial court in the case.

CBI approached the apex court also challenging acquittal of others.

The apex court bench had on December 15 last year reserved its judgement after hearing at length the arguments of CBI's counsel and Additional Solicitor General Vivek Tankha and counsel for the convicts.

Appearing for CBI, Tankha had told the bench that Singh deserves death sentence as the murders were committed in a most "diabolic and dastardly manner" which warranted exemplary punishment.
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