ROHTAK (India) • Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a self-styled "godman" who gained both a cult-like following and notoriety for ordering the castration of male followers, yesterday begged for forgiveness when a judge slapped a 20-year jail term on him for raping two women.
As soon as the judge passed the sentence inside the prison where the 50-year-old spiritual guru was being held, Singh fell to the floor and cried, Indian broadcaster NDTV reported.
"Please forgive me," Singh pleaded, refusing to leave the room. "I am innocent," he wailed, before he was taken away by commandos.
It was earlier reported that Singh had been sentenced to 10 years in jail, but India's Central Bureau of Investigations later clarified that he received two consecutive 10-year sentences.
Tens of thousands of police officers enforced a lockdown in large parts of the northern states of Haryana and Punjab where Singh has a mass following, said Reuters.
The police in Haryana issued orders to shoot protesters on sight ahead of the sentencing and ordered the hearing to be carried out inside the prison where Singh had been held since his conviction last Friday.
The prison in the town of Rohtak, 66km from New Delhi, was transformed into a fortress, with journalists banned from approaching within 1.6km of it. Roads were lined with barbed-wire barricades.
DOZENS MORE VICTIMS
We will file two appeals shortly. One for enhancement of the punishment and the other for further investigation into the case. We believe there are at least 48 more victims who were sexually abused and who may have been killed or are too scared to come out and testify against Ram Rahim.
MR UTSAV SINGH BAINS, a lawyer for the two victims - one a minor - in the case, which dates back to 1999.
The judge had to be flown in by helicopter for the sentencing.
Riots broke out last week when Singh was found guilty of raping two devotees at the sprawling headquarters of his hugely popular Dera Sacha Sauda sect in Haryana.
At least 38 people were killed and over 200 injured, triggering criticism that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling party, which also governs the state of Haryana, was either unable or unwilling to act against Singh's followers.
Mr V. Umashankar, a special commissioner, said a curfew was in force in the town of Sirsa, home to the sect, and parts of Rohtak.
More than 100 of Singh's senior loyalists have been placed in detention as a precautionary measure, said Rohtak police chief Navdeep Singh Virk.
He said his officers would use "whatever force is required" against the guru's devotees should they again resort to violence.
A lawyer for the victims in the case, which dates back to 1999, said there could be dozens more cases of abuse involving women of the sect.
"We will file two appeals shortly. One for enhancement of the punishment and the other for further investigation into the case," Mr Utsav Singh Bains told Agence France-Presse by phone.
"We believe there are at least 48 more victims who were sexually abused and who may have been killed or are too scared to come out and testify against Ram Rahim."
Mr Bains said the prosecution wanted the court to jail Singh for life - the maximum possible sentence for rape in India - given that there were two victims and one was a minor.
Singh's lawyer, Mr A.K. Panth, said his client was innocent and would appeal, Reuters reported.
"Our legal battle will not end here. Our client is absolutely innocent," said Mr Panth.
Ms Vipassana Insaan, a spokesman for the Dera Sacha Sauda, urged Singh's followers to respect the court's order.
Gurus - often Hindu ascetics - have long played an integral role in the daily lives of many Indians, who believe their teachings provide a pathway to enlightenment.
In 2014, "godman" Rampal Maharaj barricaded himself in his ashram, guarded by devotees armed with stones, petrol bombs and other weapons, after a court issued a warrant for his arrest on a series of charges, including conspiracy to murder.
It was days before the police were finally able to clear the giant complex and arrest the guru. Six people died during the siege.
Singh also faces charges of murder in two separate cases and is accused of castrating 400 men inside his ashram to "help them get closer to God".