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A Hindu priest whose “respectable, revered, God-like persona transformed into a lewd pervert behind closed doors” has been sentenced to life imprisonment for raping a 12-year-old girl from oThongathi (Tongaat).
“You had cold bloodedly turned her into a pliable object from which to derive sexual satisfaction that one could expect to be pursued by a depraved and vile paedophile,” Verulam Regional Court magistrate, Jenny Pillay, told rapist Adhyatma Adhyatma Amithananda, 57.
The priest and self-proclaimed spiritual teacher had brought shame to his country, India, she said.
The girl was struggling to come to terms with the severe abuse, and she constantly asked why God had punished her, the court had earlier heard.
Amithananda was sentenced to life imprisonment for six counts of rape, 10 years for two counts of sexual grooming, and five years for creating, publishing and possessing child pornography.
The sentences will run concurrently, meaning Amithananda will serve an effective 25 years in jail, which is considered a life term, although he may be eligible for parole thereafter.
Pillay also ordered that Amithananda’s name be immediately included on the National Register for Sex Offenders.
Amithananda arrived from Kerala, India, in March 2010 at the invitation of local religious leaders.
The victim’s family met him at a local temple where he was delivering a religious discourse.
The girl had epilepsy with chronic seizures and the family had asked him to pray for her to cure her of her condition.
Amithananda had gained the girl’s confidence by telling her he could cure her of her condition.
However, he sexually abused her from June 2010 before raping her over a period of two months, from March 2011.
The sexual assaults, Amithananda had told the girl, were part of the healing process.
In aggravation of sentence, the girl’s uncle, who introduced Amithananda to her, broke down as he told the court how he had wanted to end his life after he found out about his niece’s ordeal.
“He manipulated my trust and wrecked my family life,” he said.
“My niece lives with me. He has hurt her very badly. Her epilepsy is three times worse, she has lost weight and is almost half her weight. She hides from people and is doing badly at school.”
He said she refused to talk about religion and constantly asked why God had punished her.
“I am ashamed of what has happened. I have sleepless nights. She, her parents and my family blame me for introducing the swami to her…”
Before passing sentence, Pillay said Amithananda’s conduct would make it difficult for believers in South Africa to trust spiritual healers coming from India.
“You have brought shame not only upon yourself, your fellow monks, spiritual healers and holy men. You have brought shame to India, a wonderful country from where you have come. A country that is valued so much by people here, particularly those with ancestral links,” she said.
“It is impossible to reconcile your behaviour with that of a holy man, a spiritual healer, God’s representative of divinity on Earth.”
Pillay said it was difficult to imagine how the girl was going to survive the emotional and psychological impact of the experience she was subjected to.
“The memories are bound to haunt her for the rest of her life...”
She praised the investigating officer, Captain Kessie Gounder, for the professional manner in which he had handled the investigation.
Prosecutor Sagra Subroyen said Amithananda’s sentencing came in the week that South Africans observed 16 days for no violence against women and children.
Speaking to the Daily News after sentencing, Amithananda remained adamant he was innocent and that he lived a life of celibacy.
“I did not do it,” he protested. “I have thousands of students all over the world whom I have counselled and put on to the spiritual path. They still believe in my innocence. In fact my students from India and Dubai have paid all my legal bills.”
Amithananda said since bail was denied last year, he had spent nine months in prison.
“I meditate for 18 hours a day. I am well taken care of in prison,” he said. “I also spend a lot of time teaching the Hindu work to my fellow inmates. I sleep well at night with a clear conscience.”
He said he maintained a pure vegetarian diet in prison.
“This is God’s decision, not mine. I have accepted my fate,” he said. “God has work for me to do in prison. I am his servant and surrender myself to him.”
Amithananda, who has two older siblings and an 81-year-old mother, said he had their support.
“Prison does not scare me. It’s like being alone in a cave in India,” he said. “I have done that many times. I will continue to spread the word of God in prison...”