Two rape trials stir controversy in Kerala, in south India


BANGALORE – Two rape trials – one involving a movie star and the other a former Catholic bishop – have led to deep divisions among the public in the south Indian state of Kerala.

Actor and producer Dileep, 55, is accused of arranging the abduction and sexual assault of an actress in 2017, while Franco Mulakkal, 57, the former bishop of the Jalandhar diocese in the northern state of Punjab, has found himself at the centre of allegations that he raped a nun 13 times.

The alleged victim in the first case is an actress who worked in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films. She was abducted in Kochi and assaulted in her car for two hours on Feb 17, 2017. Some of the 10 people subsequently accused of being connected with the case recorded the assault on video.

A few months later, Mr Dileep was arrested for allegedly paying off those involved in the assault and for the video recording. He was detained for three months in July 2017 and is now out on bail.

In the other case, the nun, aged around 45, filed a police complaint in June 2018 that the former bishop raped her repeatedly between 2014 to 2016 when he visited her Missionaries of Jesus congregation in Kottayam city, Kerala, which is part of his diocese.

But Father Mulakkal and the diocese accused the nun of “seeking revenge” for ordering an inquiry into a complaint against her. He was arrested and removed temporarily from his post by the Vatican after the allegations. The Association of Malayalam Movie Artists and the Catholic church in India has backed Father Mulakkal.

Both alleged victims had few allies – mostly close women colleagues – but the public mood shifted last week.

The actress’ case received new focus in recent weeks after prominent director Balachandra Kumar, a former friend of the accused, released incriminating audio clips that might prove witness tampering.

On Jan 10, the alleged victim spoke in public for the first time using her Instagram handle. “Even though I am not the one who committed the crime, there have been attempts to humiliate, silence and isolate me,” she wrote.

Over 200 actors, directors and producers shared her posting. Public outrage over the case has now led to prominent actors such as Mammootty and Mohanlal, who earlier supported the accused, to tweet that they now stand with the alleged victim.

Meanwhile, the trial involving the nun, which began in Nov 2019, came to what many in Kerala described as a “shocking” end last week. On Jan 15, the former bishop was acquitted by a lower court for want of evidence.

In the 289-page verdict, the judge rejected the nun’s testimony because she did not mention the exact details of the rape at all times, omitted the name of a nun she had disclosed the incidents to, and occasionally used milder phrases than rape to describe the forced encounters.

A visibly relieved Father Mulakkal hugged his lawyers, and his supporters outside the court distributed sweets amid loud chants of “Praise the Lord”. The Jalandhar diocese issued a statement in Malayalam thanking those who believed in his innocence.

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