Kochi: The Kerala High Court on Wednesday rejected the anticipatory bail petitions of three priests of a church accused of raping a woman, observing they acted as "predators" and took "undue advantage" of her.
The three -- Abraham Varghese alias Sony, Job Mathew and Jaise K George -- had approached the court soon after the crime branch of Kerala Police slapped rape charges against four of the five Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church priests, who were accused of sexually exploiting the victim.
"Prima facie the applicants acted as predators...they have taken undue advantage of the position of the survivor," justice R Vijayaraghavan said, dismissing their bail pleas.
According to the woman, she was "systematically abused" by the accused, who were all closely known to her family.
The court said it cannot ignore the prosecution's apprehension that the accused would tamper with evidence and influence the witnesses as the investigation was in the preliminary stages.
"The reasonable possibility of the accused managing to obstruct the course of justice, if released at this stage, cannot be brushed aside," it said.
The judge said given the gravity of the alleged crime, the evidence present, and the status of the accused with reference to the victim and witnesses, there was a likelihood of the accused fleeing from justice and obstructing its course.
"I am of the view that the applicants are not entitled to an order of pre-arrest bail," he said.
The court also directed the accused to surrender forthwith before the court of jurisdiction.
Justice Vijayaraghavan said he had "anxiously" considered the submissions and scrutinised the case diary.
The alleged crime was registered on July 2 this year after a senior police officer conducted a preliminary investigation.
"They (the clergymen) were in a position of dominance over the victim and by exploiting the said status, they are alleged to have sexually abused her. The victim in her statement emphatically asserted that the consent was not unequivocal or voluntary," the judge said.
The woman, he said, has given a graphic description of how she was threatened and forced to succumb to the carnal desires of the accused.
"I find no reason to ignore her statement at this stage or to place reliance on Annexure A1 which does not inspire confidence. The survivor has an explanation of offer for keeping the incident under wraps," the court noted.
The public prosecutor said the victim had, in her statement to a magistrate, narrated in detail the abuse to which she was subjected.
The statement of the survivor was corroborated by the evidence of other witnesses and electronic evidence in the form of call data records and chat transcripts, he said.
In their bail applications, the priests had rejected the woman's allegations of sexually assaulting her.
They claimed the case was registered against them solely "under political pressure exerted by certain vested interests to derive political mileage".
The crime branch registered an FIR against four priests, including the three whose pre-arrest bail petitions were rejected today, after recording the alleged victim's statement.
The woman's husband had last month accused five priests of using his wife's secret confession to "blackmail and sexually abuse" her.
The name of the fifth clergyman was not included for want of substantial evidence.
The incident came to light after an audio clip of the purported conversation of the husband of the alleged victim with a church official about the alleged sexual abuse of his wife by the priests was widely circulated on social media.
Veteran CPM leader and chairman of the Kerala Administrative Reforms Commission V S Achuthanandan and the National Commission for Women had written to the state police chief, Loknath Behara, seeking a thorough probe.
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