IS THIS JUSTICE?

Having come to testify at the Court of Pudukkottai, Renée and Xavier van Bambeke relate their experience as defence witnesses before the court.

Renée’s Account:

Renée Van BambekeIt was in December of 1996, when my husband and I were in India that we were asked to give our testimonies at the trial that was due to begin shortly. We had been very shocked at the accusations pronounced against Swami Premananda, and everything we knew about him was more than enough to convince us of the fact that this whole affaire had been entirely staged from beginning to end.

So we immediately accepted, hoping that our testimonies, added to the many others, would help the wheels of justice to bring out the truth. Unfortunately, we understood during the process of the trial that this was not to be the case.

So it was that, on the day of the hearings reserved for defense witnesses, we found ourselves in the waiting room of the Law Court in Pudukkottai. We had been told we would do well to be extra attentive, for the judge seemed to have the tendency to distort the testimonies, and, by a curious coincidence, always to Swami Premananda’s disadvantage.

The hearings take place as follows: first the witness replies to the lawyers’ questions (in my case English was spoken), then the judge dictates these replies to the clerk, who simultaneously types them out using a typewriter. So I was really alert, straining to hear every word above the noise of the fans and the typewriter and also concentrating to understand the judge’s English which had that typical Indian accent strange to our Western ears.

One of the first questions the lawyer for the prosecution asked me was whether I was being paid by the Ashram. The aim of the lawyer’s question was obviously to discredit me, insinuating that my motivation in helping the charitable works of Swami Premananda was purely financial. “The work we do is, of course, done on an entirely voluntary basis” was my immediate answer. You can imagine my surprise when I then heard the judge dictating to the clerk exactly the opposite of what I had just said.

I reacted immediately to this distortion of my testimony, with the result that the judge had to rectify her words and re-dictate the answer correctly. Then, probably realizing that I had a good understanding of English, as well as good hearing, the judge dictated the rest of my testimony correctly.

Among the witnesses that day, there was to be one of particular importance, a Ms. Ambikanathan, who had previously lived in the Sri Premananda Ashram together with her husband. Her husband, whom we used to call Mister Ambi, was one of the principal witnesses for the prosecution against Swami Premananda, for it was he who had accused Swami Premananda of nothing less than murder!

There had been a death in the Ashram more than six years previously. The deceased was a man called Ravi, who suffered from a grave mental illness and had died of septicemia, due to self-inflicted wounds. Now, years later, Mr. Ambikanathan was claiming to have suddenly ‘remembered’ this so-called murder. His wife’s, Mrs. Ambikanathan’s testimony would, therefore, be fundamental to the case, since she was there to testify that her husband’s testimony was entirely false.

It is no easy thing, according to Indian custom, for a wife to testify against her husband. But she had courageously accepted to appear in court to try to reinstate the truth.

Needless to say, the prosecution knew this testimony would be a great embarrassment for them and therefore had resorted to all kinds of means in their efforts to prevent her from testifying. Her house, for instance, was under constant police surveillance. But the defence lawyers had come up with a plan to fool the police. Without the police knowing, the lawyers had managed to change the day on which Mrs. Ambikanathan was scheduled to testify, and so, when she left her house on the day, saying she was going to the temple, the police let her go.

However, a short while before she was actually to testify, she was called to the telephone. One of her sons was calling from the police station to say that he had just been arrested and would be released only if his mother refused to testify.

It was then that I remember hearing someone yelling and shouting. Lataa, the main assistant to the defense attorney, was furiously refusing to continue with the proceedings as long as Mrs. Ambikanathan’s son was not released from police custody.

After some time, the police eventually released him and the trial was able to resume. Mrs. Ambikanathan could finally give her testimony and categorically affirmed that her husband was a liar.

Leaving the courtroom, she said she didn’t dare return to her home, as her husband would surely kill her, and she asked to take refuge in the Ashram. As we had a taxi at our disposal we offered to take her there by car. I remember she was so frightened of being arrested by the police that she took a scarf and, in the manner of Muslim women, covered her face so that they would not recognise her.

Xavier’s Account:

Xavier Van BambekeThe following day the examinations of the defense witnesses continued. As my wife had testified the day before, she didn’t go to court on that day. I was sitting in the waiting room, together with some of the other defense witnesses. At a certain time we saw a police jeep drive up and park right in the center of the inner courtyard. Several policemen stepped out of the jeep, together with a young man who then conspicuously settled himself by leaning against the side of the car. With an ironic smile on his face, he kept watching us from a distance. This man was Anand Mohan, one of the main witnesses for the prosecution. Why was he behaving like this? Was it to impress the witnesses by showing us the excellent relations he had with the police? Then a young woman stepped out of the jeep. She had changed so much that, at first, I didn’t recognize her. After a while, however, I recognized her to be no less than Suresh Kumari. She was the young girl who had given that famous ‘interview’ to the newspaper, The Indian Express, stating that she had been the victim of a rape and thereby triggering the events that followed. She was well known to the visitors of the Ashram for she had a very beautiful voice and she had often conducted the bhajans sessions (religious songs sung in the temple). For some reason, I don’t know why, everyone called her ‘Baby’. But what a change in her behaviour: I remembered a very simple girl, but now here in front of me stood a girl richly dressed in a magnificent silk sari and who had obviously been to a hairdresser to have her hair done in a modern ‘Western’ style. Was this really the same girl presented by the press as ‘the victim’? She was walking proudly and I couldn’t help thinking of all the other girls from the Ashram who had been taken by the police, tortured and kept in detention for more than two years. Weren’t these girls the real victims, victims of the media and the police? The young girl I saw now had a triumphant look about her. She walked towards the room where the defense witnesses were waiting. It was then we understood that she intended to try to pressure her mother not to testify. Indeed, Baby’s mother was to testify that day. Just as Mrs. Ambikanathan had testified against her own husband the day before, Baby’s mother had that day bravely come to testify against her own daughter. She, too, wanted to defend the truth. At that moment I blocked the doorway, preventing Baby from entering and pressuring her mother, thereby making it possible for her to testify freely.

Soon it was my turn to be called as a witness. Naturally, my wife had explained the importance of paying careful attention to the dictation of the testimonies. So of course I was on my guard and, indeed, from the very first question posed to me, I understood that the answer dictated to the clerk by the judge was exactly the opposite of what I had said. What happened next was exactly the same as had happened the day before with my wife: after I protested, the judge rectified her dictation and then didn’t try to modify the following answers. But what would have happened if Renée or myself had not understood English sufficiently enough to pick up the judge’s distortions of our answers? And how many other witnesses unknowingly had their testimonies distorted in this way? At the close of the trial Renée and I had more than a few reasons to be worried. If, besides the biased behaviour adopted by the media and the police, the judiciary itself proved to be partial, what chance would there be for a correct and honest judgement? Unfortunately the facts only confirmed our worst fears.

Today, it has been more than ten years that five persons (a sixth was released and a seventh has since died) have been imprisoned unfairly, not only for crimes of which they are completely innocent but, more than this, for crimes that never even took place! This following all what went before: the false evidence, the arbitrary arrests, the threats, the tortures, the corruption. Who is behind all this? Where does all the money come from to finance this plot? Would it be possible that such a conspiracy could have been hatched and financed by someone like Baby, an eighteen -year old girl; or Anand Mohan, a known alcoholic and drug addict; or Mister Ambi, jealous of Swami Premananda for not having been appointed as his personal secretary? We cannot help but believe these people represent only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and that, most certainly, a powerful organization is behind this iniquitous sham and has orchestrated the whole conspiracy. To whom could Swami Premananda pose such a threat? Shall we one day know the truth?