India guru charged with rape over teen sexual assault

JAIPUR, INDIA (AFP) - Indian police on Wednesday charged a popular spiritual leader with raping a 16-year-old schoolgirl at a religious retreat, lawyers said.

Asaram Bapu, one of many self-styled Hindu "godmen" who attract vast numbers of followers, was booked for several offences, including rape, trafficking and sexual crimes against minors.

Bapu, 72, who in his preachings urges followers to live a "pious life" free of sexual desires, was arrested in September in central Madhya Pradesh state and flown to Jodhpur, in Rajasthan in western India, where the alleged assault took place. The police charge sheet is more than 1,000 pages long and includes statements from 58 witnesses, prosecution lawyer Manish Vyas said.

The white-bearded guru, who once condemned Valentine's Day as encouraging young people to engage in "dirty acts", has dismissed the claims against him as a political conspiracy.

The alleged attack took place on Aug 15 as Bapu was holding a retreat for followers, including the alleged victim and her parents. He told the parents he needed to meet their daughter alone after being informed of concerns she was possessed by evil spirits, police have said. Once alone in his room, the guru allegedly assaulted the girl, who told her parents two days later.

The family then travelled to New Delhi to confront him - but the guru refused to meet them, prompting them to go to police.

The guru triggered public outrage in January when he claimed that a 23-year-old Indian student could have avoided being fatally gang-raped on a New Delhi bus by begging for mercy from her attackers and calling them "brothers".

Bapu has some 350 ashrams or religious retreats in the country and overseas, where he teaches yoga and meditation and offers lessons on leading a spiritual and peaceful existence, according to his website.

Arguments in the court case will begin Nov 16, lawyers said.