PANCHKULA: A special CBI court here today convicted flamboyant self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in a 2002 rape case, triggering widespread violence and arson by his supporters in Punjab and Haryana.
At least 17 people were killed and more than 150 injured in the violence that left a trail of destruction and vandalism, a Haryana government official said.
CBI judge Jagdeep Singh held Ram Rahim, the 50-year-old Dera Sacha Sauda chief, guilty of rape in a case that was registered on the basis of an anonymous written complaint in 2002 that he had sexually exploited two female followers.
On the basis of the report, a case was registered against him in December 2002 by the CBI on the directions of the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
The quantum of sentence will be pronounced on August 28, CBI counsel HPS Verma told reporters outside the court.
The punishment can be a jail term not less than seven years but may even extend to life imprisonment.
Ram Rahim reached the court in Panchkula, a satellite town of Chandigarh, more than five hours after he left the sect headquarters in Sirsa by road at about 9 am. Sirsa is about 260 kms from Chandigarh.
Army personnel and central paramilitary forces took positions around the CBI court complex in Panchkula, even as the area close to the complex was sealed.
The Dera chief, who enjoys 'Z' category security, travelled in a convoy that included several SUVs to reach Panchkula.
As the Dera head left the sect headquarters at Sirsa, some of the followers standing on the roadside turned hysterical and held up the cavalcade for a few minutes.
The followers, mostly young men, squatted on the road just in front of the cavalcade. However, the police immediately evicted them following which the Dera chief continued his onward journey to Panchkula.
Ram Rahim was accompanied by a number of his own security guards in the cavalcade. After the verdict he was taken into custody and whisked away.
The uneasy calm in Sirsa and Panchkula exploded into violence after the verdict, as Ram Rahim's followers went berserk, attacking media vehicles and personnel.
With police apparently helpless to stop the violence, the emboldened protesters set fire to vehicles and buildings, including two railway stations in Punjab.
Police fired tear gas, water cannons and eventually bullets in the air.
A bus was torched in northeast Delhi's Loni Chowk also, alleged by Dera supporters.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who took stock of the situation, called up chief ministers of Haryana and Punjab, Manohar Lal Khattar and Amarinder Singh respectively, a Home Ministry official said.
The home minister, who rushed to the North Block office of the home ministry directly from airport after arriving from Kyrgyz Republic, assured them all assistance in restoring peace.
Singh also held a high-level meeting with top officials and reviewed the situation.
The home minister directed the central agencies to monitor the situation and apprise him regularly, the official said.
The violence was feared as tens of thousands of 'premis', as the Dera followers are known, had descended on Panchkula a few days ago. Many had also camped in Sirsa where authorities clamped curfew from 10 pm yesterday.
The Dera followers could be seen occupying parks, roads and other available places like under the flyovers to pitch their tents.
However, authorities said that they had sealed the road leading to the district court complex and nobody was being allowed on that route.
The CBI filed the chargesheet against the Dera head in Ambala court in July 2007 about five years after the registration of the rape case. The chargesheet mentions sexual exploitation of two 'Sadhvis' (women followers) between 1999 and 2001.
The Special CBI court framed charges against Ram Rahim under sections 376 (rape) and 506 (criminal intimidation) of the IPC in September 2008.
Between 2009 and 2010, the two complainants recorded their statements before the court.
The Special CBI court shifted from Ambala to Panchkula and the case against Dera chief was also transferred to Panchkula CBI Court.
In July 2017, the court ordered daily hearing and arguments of prosecution and defence were concluded on August 17, 2017.