Self-styled Indian "godman" jailed for life for teen rape

NEW DELHI, April 25 (Reuters) - An Indian court jailed a self-styled religious preacher for life on Wednesday for raping a teenage girl, the latest sexual abuse case against a so-called "godman."

The case highlights the Indian heartland's fascination with spiritual gurus, who wield immense influence for their ability to mobilize millions of adherents, amass untaxed funds and find favor with politicians.

A judge delivered the guilty verdict at a jail in the city of Jodhpur, in the western state of Rajasthan, where Asumal Harpalani, commonly known as Asaram Bapu, has been held since September 2013.

The 77-year-old, who has more than 400 ashrams around the world according to his website, had been denied bail a dozen times.

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JODHPUR, RAJASTHAN, INDIA - 2016/05/02: Spiritual leader Asaram Bapu accused in a sexual assault case arrives on wheel chair at the district session court for hearing. (Photo by Sunil Verma/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
An Indian security personnel stands outside the ashram run by Asaram Bapu in Jalandhar on April 25, 2018. - An Indian guru with millions of followers was sentenced to life in prison April 25 for raping a teenage devotee on the pretext of ridding her of evil spirits, his lawyer said. Asaram Bapu, one of India's most charismatic and controversial 'godmen', was given the maximum sentence at a closed jailhouse hearing in Rajasthan state, where hundreds of police were on high alert for any backlash from his disciples. (Photo by SHAMMI MEHRA / AFP) (Photo credit should read SHAMMI MEHRA/AFP/Getty Images)
The entrance to the ashram run by Indian guru Asaram Bapu is seen in Jalandhar on April 25, 2018. - An Indian guru with millions of followers was sentenced to life in prison April 25 for raping a teenage devotee on the pretext of ridding her of evil spirits, his lawyer said. Asaram Bapu, one of India's most charismatic and controversial 'godmen', was given the maximum sentence at a closed jailhouse hearing in Rajasthan state, where hundreds of police were on high alert for any backlash from his disciples. (Photo by SHAMMI MEHRA / AFP) (Photo credit should read SHAMMI MEHRA/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indian volunteer leaves the ashram run by Asaram Bapu in Jalandhar on April 25, 2018. - An Indian guru with millions of followers was sentenced to life in prison April 25 for raping a teenage devotee on the pretext of ridding her of evil spirits, his lawyer said. Asaram Bapu, one of India's most charismatic and controversial 'godmen', was given the maximum sentence at a closed jailhouse hearing in Rajasthan state, where hundreds of police were on high alert for any backlash from his disciples. (Photo by SHAMMI MEHRA / AFP) (Photo credit should read SHAMMI MEHRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Rajendra Singh Charan, the victim's family lawyer, speaks to the media outside the Central Jail following the court's life imprisonment verdict to guru Asaram Bapu for sexually assaulting a minor girl, in Jodhpur on April 25, 2018. - An Indian guru with millions of followers was found guilty Wednesday of raping a teenage devotee on the pretext of ridding her of evil spirits, a lawyer for the victim's family said. Asaram Bapu, 77, who leads hundreds of ashrams in India and overseas, was convicted at a closed jailhouse court hearing in Jodhpur, in western Rajasthan state where hundreds of police stood guard. The white-bearded guru, who urges followers to live a pious life free of sexual desires, has always denied raping the then 16-year-old in 2013 at an ashram in the city. (Photo by SUNIL VERMA / AFP) (Photo credit should read SUNIL VERMA/AFP/Getty Images)
Volunteers stand at the main entrance of controversial Indian guru Asaram Bapu ashram, who is accused of sexually assaulting a minor girl, in New Delhi on April 25, 2018. - An Indian guru with millions of followers was found guilty April 25, 2018 of raping a teenage devotee on the pretext of ridding her of evil spirits, a lawyer for the victim said. (Photo by MONEY SHARMA / AFP) (Photo credit should read MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)
JODHPUR, RAJASTHAN, INDIA - 2016/05/02: Spiritual leader Asaram Bapu accused in a sexual assault case arrives on wheel chair at the district session court for hearing. (Photo by Sunil Verma/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
JODHPUR, INDIA - NOVEMBER 18: Asaram Bapu, Hindu preacher gestures to media persons as he returns after being produced at session court in connection with the case of sexual assault of a minor on November 18, 2013 in Jodhpur, India. Court dismissed as withdrawn the petitions moved by controversial self-styled godman Asaram. (Photo by Ramji Vyas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
JODHPUR, INDIA - OCTOBER 25: Religious preacher Asaram Bapu with his lawyers while he was produced at court on October 25, 2013 in Jodhpur, India. Asaram was sent to judicial custody by a Jodhpur court in the case involving rape and sexual assault of a 16-year-old minor girl. Both Asaram and his son Narayan Sai have both been accused in a sexual assault case by two Surat-based sisters. (Photo by Ramji Vyas/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
JODHPUR, INDIA - NOVEMBER 18: Asaram Bapu, Hindu preacher returns after being produced at session court in connection with the case of sexual assault of a minor on November 18, 2013 in Jodhpur, India. Court dismissed as withdrawn the petitions moved by controversial self-styled godman Asaram. (Photo by Ramji Vyas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Indian spiritual guru Asaram Bapu (C) is escorted by police, after he was arrested from his Indore ashram, at the airport in Jodhpur on September 1, 2013. Police have arrested the popular Indian spiritual guru for an alleged sexual assault on a 16-year-old schoolgirl at a religious retreat in central India, a local official said. AFP PHOTO/ STR (Photo credit should read STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)
MOTERA, INDIA - SEPTEMBER 8: An image of the guru Asaram Bapu, Asumal Harpalani, adorns the walls of the ashram in Motera, India on September 8, 2013. Some in plain white clothes; others with peacock feather in his hair; others in royal-style jewelry. Harpalani is now languishing in jail, arrested last month on charges of sexually assaulting the 16-year-old daughter of two of his followers. In recent weeks, the allegations against the mega-guru who runs a massive network of hundreds of ashrams worth an estimated $760 million have stunned and split India. (Photo by Rama Lakshmi/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Aide of Indian spiritual guru Asaram Bapu, Shiva (R) is produced at a court in Jodhpur on September 3, 2013. An Indian court on September 4, 2013 denied bail to a popular Indian spiritual guru charged with sexually assaulting a 16-year-old schoolgirl at a religious retreat, officials said. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
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Defense lawyer Sushma Dhara said she would challenge the verdict.

"The sentencing has come as a big relief," said Kiran Jha Thakur, the founder of Kalpana, a non-government body that helped the victim's family pursue the case.

"It goes on to show that even if you are a 'godman', if you commit a crime, our judiciary will get you," Thakur said.

India's Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act permits lifetime jail terms for sexual assault of children, and was recently amended to allow the death penalty for the rape of girls under 12.

Two of the preacher's aides were also convicted and jailed for 20 years each, while two others were acquitted.

"This judgment is a lesson to people who think they can get away by committing sexual offenses against children," said Yashwant Jain, a member of National Commission For Protection of Child Rights.

The case dates from August 2013, when the 16-year-old girl accused the preacher of sexually assaulting her at his ashram in Jodhpur, about 210 miles from the state capital of Jaipur.

The girl, who reportedly sought to be rid of evil spirits, said in her complaint that she was asked to perform oral sex and was touched inappropriately, media said.

Security forces in four states - Rajasthan and neighboring western Gujarat, as well as northern Uttar Pradesh and Haryana - went on high alert, for fear of a backlash from supporters.

Last year, followers of another guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, ran amok after he was found guilty of rape, unleashing violence that killed more than 30.

Nationwide outrage after a series of child rapes over the last two weeks spurred Prime Minister Narendra Modi's cabinet to approve the death penalty for the rape of girls younger than 12.

(Reporting by Malini Menon Editing by Nick Macfie)

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