A controversial Indian spiritual guru has been sentenced to life in prison for the 2002 murder of a journalist who helped expose the sexual abuse of women within his sect.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, head of the spiritual organization Dera Sacha Sauda, received the sentence on Thursday through a video link in prison, where he is serving 20 years for the rape of two female followers.
Self-styled “godman” Singh, along with aides Kuldeep Singh, Nirmal Singh and Krishan Lal, was convicted on murder charges and criminal conspiracy by a court in Panchkula in northern Haryana state on Friday last week.
Despite his earlier conviction, Singh remains an influential figure in India where he commands a loyal and devoted following. Known as the “guru of bling” on account of his previously flamboyant lifestyle, Singh starred in five films and numerous popular music videos, including the “Messenger of God,” in which he acts as the hero who saves the nation.
His Dera Sacha Sauda, the website of which still features Singh prominently, describes itself as a “selfless socio-spiritual organization” and has ashrams across 10 states and union territories in India and claims to have millions of followers worldwide.
In 2002, Ram Chander Chhatrapati, the editor of Hindi-language daily “Poora Sacch” (The Whole Truth) was shot dead following the publication of an anonymous letter by one of Singh’s followers.
The letter, which eventually led to the 2017 sentencing of Singh, described incidents of sexual abuse at the Dera Sacha Sauda compound in the state of Haryana.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, center, greets followers as he arrives for a press conference in New Delhi, India, in October 2016.
Speaking at a press conference after Singh’s sentencing, Chhatrapati’s son Anshul said that his father’s death had been a direct result of his decision to publish the anonymous letter.
“The next day onwards, there were threats and he understood that he was likely to be killed. Still, he decided to soldier on,” said Anshul. “My faith in law has been reaffirmed. The sacrifice of my father was to uphold the journalistic principles of complete truth,” he added.
Police in northern India have been placed on standby following Thursday’s sentencing. Singh’s conviction sparked deadly protests, as supporters went on a rampage in towns across the northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. At least 31 people were killed in the clashes and hundreds injured.