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'Eight guilty' of Dalit murders

15 September 08 15:07 GMT

A court in the western Indian state of Maharashtra has convicted eight people of the murder of four members of a lower-caste Dalit family in 2006.

Three other defendants were acquitted for lack of evidence. Sentencing is expected next week.

A Dalit farmer's wife, daughter and two sons were killed by an upper-caste mob in a land row. The farmer escaped.

The case led to widespread protests. Crimes against Dalits, formerly untouchables, often go unpunished.

Discrimination against Dalits, who are at the bottom of the centuries-old Hindu caste system, is a punishable offence in India.

Even so, campaigners say violence against Dalits is on the rise.

Raped

The brutal killings took place on 29 September 2006 in a remote village called Khairlanji, in Bhandara district in the north-east of the state.

Surekha Bhotmange, her 17-year-old daughter Priyanka and two sons, 19-year-old Roshan and 21-year-old Sudhir, were at home when an upper-caste mob broke into their mud hut and murdered them.

The four were dragged out and beaten with bicycle chains, sticks and other weapons, the court in Bhandara heard.

The mother and daughter were stripped and raped by the mob, prosecutors said. The women's bodies were found in a nearby canal the next day.

Surekha's husband, Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, managed to escape and hid behind a tree from where he watched his family being killed.

He pursued the case with the support of several human rights activists.

The prosecution argued that the killings were caste-related, but the court rejected the allegation.

Prosecutors say they plan to appeal against that part of the verdict, as well as the three acquittals.

Speaking to the BBC, public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam described what happened as "a war against the Dalits".

Menial

The killings led to widespread protests across Maharashtra and in November 2006, the case was handed over to the CBI.

A month later, the agency charged 11 people with criminal conspiracy, unlawful assembly with deadly weapons, murder, trespass, outraging the modesty of women, destruction of evidence and caste-related offences.

About 10.2% of Maharashtra's approximately 100m-strong population belong to the Dalit community.

In the traditional Hindu caste system, Dalits were considered the lowest of the low castes.

They were expected to do the most menial jobs in villages. They could not share basic amenities, including drinking water, with upper-caste people.

Such practices still exist in rural areas.

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