Two rape trials stir controversy in south Indian state of Kerala

Former bishop Franco Mulakkal, who is alleged to have raped a nun 13 times, outside a crime branch office on Sept 21, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

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, is 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 in 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.

Father Mulakkal was arrested and removed temporarily from his post by the Vatican after the allegations.

The Association of Malayalam Movie Artists has backed Mr Dileep, while the Catholic church in India backed Father Mulakkal.

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

The actress' case came under the spotlight 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 post. Public outrage over the case has now led to prominent actors such as Mammootty and Mohanlal, who had 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.

The nun's lawyer said she would lodge an appeal.

The unexpected verdict sparked a wave of condemnation, bringing supporters of both cases together and enraging many others.

Delhi-based senior lawyer Vrinda Grover said: "This search for the ideal rape victim by the Indian courts continues to give injustice." She added that the verdict is flawed as it assassinates the victim's character by going into her "fabricated past sexual history".

The nun had to go through two breast examinations to disprove the defence team's allegations that she had had other "illicit relations".

Former Kottayam Superintendent of Police S. Harishankar who led the probe into the case called the not-guilty verdict "unbelievable" and "very disappointing". He said that unlike many other sexual harassment cases, all witnesses had turned up, and insisted that there was ample medical and corroborative evidence.

In a Jan 19 social media campaign, hundreds of women posted handwritten letters of support with the hashtag #WithTheNuns and #Avalkoppam or "with her" in Malayalam.

Actress Parvathy Thiruvothu wrote: "We are here to walk this thorny path with you, holding space for you, fighting for you and breathing with you. In a world that has gotten used to treat us as dispensable nothings, it is a revolution to stay right here and breathe."

Ms Thiruvothu, a long-time supporter of the actress who accused Mr Dilip, is a member of the Women in Cinema Collective that was formed after many women in the industry were ostracised for asking that he be investigated. Supporters of both alleged victims have faced sexist abuse, lost career opportunities and been labelled troublemakers.

The nuns who staged unprecedented protests to get the Vatican to respond to their colleague's petitions allege that they were penalised, given disciplinary warnings, slapped with transfer notices, and even expelled from the congregation.

According to national crime statistics between 2018 and 2020, Kerala recorded the second-highest number of rape cases in India, after Rajasthan, and that in 98 per cent of the cases, the victims knew their assailants.

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