Hindu Guru Charged With Child Molestation Allowed to Leave US

VOA News/May 21, 2008

In San Marcos, Texas a judge has ruled that Hindu guru Prakashanand Saraswati may leave the United States to visit his India homeland after a local supporter in Austin posted $10 million as a guarantee. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, advocates for abused children are questioning the wisdom of the judge's action.

Texas-based businessman Peter Spiegel says he will provide the $10 million guarantee that the Indian religious leader would return to the United States.

Authorities arrested 79-year-old Prakashanand Saraswati on April 24 at Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C. after he returned from a trip to Europe. He is charged with 20 counts of indecency with two children. His organization paid one million dollars for his initial bond, which allows him to move about in the Untied States but not leave the country. He is also restricted from entering the 80-hectare property in Hays County, near the state capital of Austin, called Barsana Dham, where his temple is located and where he is alleged to have groped two underage girls in the 1990's.

The district attorney handling the case argued that no accused felon out of jail on bond should be allowed to leave the country, but Texas State District Court Judge Charles Ramsay gave his approval. Tom Burton, General Counsel for Houston-based Justice for Children, a non-profit group that is not involved in the case, is among those questioning the judge's decision.

"It is disturbing, from a public policy perspective, that an accused child molester could simply carry around a war chest and pay his way out of trouble and that appears to be what the judge allowed to happen," he said.

Supporters of the Indian cleric say the charges against him are spurious and that he will return so that he can be exonerated in court. But Tom Burton says if the accused is in fact a child molester the judge may have put children in India and elsewhere at risk by letting him leave.

"What assurances do we have that children all around the world are safe? Until we resolve the allegations here in Texas how do we know?," he said.

Saraswati, who is also known as Swami Ji and Shree Swamiji requested permission to leave the country so that he could attend religious ceremonies in India and oversee hospital-building projects there. Janeshwari Devi, a spokesperson for Barsana Dham, says in a prepared statement that testimony and character references presented to Judge Ramsay influenced his decision.

"The judge heard remarks that Shree Swamiji is a globally recognized spiritual leader who is overseeing the construction of charitable hospitals and religious centers in India. Also, letters from prominent members of parliament, high court judges, Supreme Court advocates in India also weighed substantially in the outcome of the hearing," he said.

She says Peter Spiegel put up his own money as a guarantee and told the court he had no fear of losing it since he was confident that Saraswati would return for his trial. Devi says the judge's decision was the proper one given the backing the religious leader has from both his followers abroad and here in Texas.

"We know this is an unusual decision, but it speaks directly to Swami Ji's integrity," he said.

Only a few dozen people live at the Texas Hill Country site of the Barsana Dham temple, but thousands of people have attended services and festivals held at the site.

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