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Indian Court Imposes Death Sentence in Killing of Christian Missionary - 2003-09-22

In India, a man has been sentenced to death for the murders of an Australian Christian missionary and his two sons about four years ago. Twelve other men have been given life sentences. They are expected to appeal the sentences to a higher court.

Dara Singh, the man convicted of leading a Hindu mob that set fire to the vehicle of Australian missionary Graham Staines in 1999, has been sentenced to death by hanging.

Mr. Staines and his two young sons were burned alive in their car when it was torched by the mob shouting anti-Christian slogans. The mob attacked the family members, as they slept in the car, about 165 kilometers north of the capital of Orissa state, Bhubaneshwar.

Twelve other men, convicted along with Dara Singh for the killings, have been given life sentences.

Security was tightened outside churches in Orissa, as the judge handed down the sentences. The men were convicted a week ago.

The murders of Mr. Staines and his eight- and 10-year-old sons were widely condemned in India and other countries.

The killings were the most gruesome incident in a series of attacks on missionaries and Christian institutions in 1999. The attacks were blamed on Hindu hardliners who accuse Christian missionaries of converting poor Hindus and tribal people with promises of money and other benefits.

Hindu hardline groups deny any link to Dara Singh, but say attacks such as the murder of the Australians were a reaction to alleged conversions by Christians.

After the sentences were pronounced, the widow of Mr. Staines - Gladys Staines - said she had no comment on the law taking its course. "I have forgiven the killers and have no bitterness," she said, "because forgiveness brings healing, and our land needs healing from hatred and violence."

Dara Singh evaded arrest for more than a year after the killings, apparently protected by villagers and local people sympathetic to him. His lawyers say they will appeal the death sentence, which is rarely used in India, and only in the most serious cases.

One of the 13 convicted men, Mehendra Hembram, was recently quoted in a national newspaper as saying he joined the killers because the Christians were corrupting tribal culture.

Mr. Staines ran a leprosy home in Orissa for nearly three decades before he was killed. His widow continues to work in India.