NEW DELHI (AP) — An Indian court on Wednesday found a high-profile spiritual guru guilty of raping a teenage female devotee in 2013 and sentenced him to life in prison.
The verdict against 77-year-old Asaram Bapu was read out inside the prison where he is being held in Jodhpur in Rajasthan state because of fears that his followers might resort to violence.
Security was tight around the prison complex and in states where the guru has a large following.
The trial was the latest in a series of high-profile rape cases in India that have fueled public protests and raised questions about how police handle the attacks and treat the victims.
Last August, another popular and flamboyant Indian spiritual guru, Dr. Saint Gurmeet Singh Ram Rahim Insan, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of raping two female followers.
Responding to widespread outrage over the recent rape and killings of young girls and other attacks on children, India’s government last week approved the death penalty for people convicted of raping children under age 12.
Judge Madhusudhan Sharma announced the prison term for Bapu and sentenced two of his associates to 20 years in prison each for helping him in the crime.
The judge convicted Bapu on charges of criminal conspiracy, wrongful confinement and rape.
Bapu has denied the charges, and a spokesman, Neelam Dubey, said he would appeal the verdict in a higher court.
The girl in her complaint to police in 2013 accused Bapu of raping her when she visited his retreat in Jodhpur with her mother. She was 16 at the time. The girl’s family said they had been followers of Bapu for more than a decade.
Bapu has been in prison since his arrest in 2013. He ran more than 230 ashrams with residential schools with millions of followers across India and abroad, including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Uganda and Kenya.
Religious sects wield considerable political clout in India. Bapu is also on trial along with his son Narayan Sai in a separate case in which two sisters have accused the two men of sexual assault.