Hindu guru sentenced to prison in US

Houston: Absconding Indian godman Prakashanand Saraswati, also known as Shree Swamiji, has been sentenced to 14 years in prison and fined USD 10,000 on each of 20 felony counts for groping girls who grew up on the ashram he founded and led in Central Texas.

With the subject of their deliberations still missing and presumed to be on the run, a Hays County jury today sentenced the 82-year-old religious guru to 14 years in prison for each of 20 counts of molesting two girls in his Barsana Dham ashram in Driftwood during the 1990s.

For Prakashanand, a religious leader who claims hundreds of thousands of followers worldwide, the lengthy prison sentence represented a dramatic reversal of fortune.

The parent organisation to which his Barsana Dham ashram belongs owns and operates temples and hospitals in India and other countries.

For the women who said the guru kissed and fondled them in the mid-1990s while they were in their teens, the prison sentence represented a satisfying end to a bitter battle against a man they were once told was a living saint and a religious group to which their parents still belong.

Now 27 and 30 years old, the women brought charges against the guru three years ago.

The jury of eight men and four women deliberated only a half-hour. Prakashanand didn`t show up for the punishment phase of his trial and is still at large.

District Judge Charles Ramsay will decide later whether the guru`s prison sentences are to be served concurrently.

Last week the jury found Prakashanand guilty of indecency with a child by sexual contact, based on his repeated groping of two teenagers whose families lived at the ashram he founded southwest of Austin.

Earlier, prosecutors asked the jury to sentence Prakashanand to 20 years in prison ? 400 years total ? for "each and every" one of the 20 criminal counts on which the guru was convicted of molesting the girls.

"This defendant is not a good candidate for probation because he can`t even make it to the rest of the trial," said Hays County assistant district attorney Kathy Compton.

The guru`s defence attorneys told the court that their elderly client`s various ailments ? coronary disease, back pain and hypertension ? make him too infirm to be in prison.

"To put him in a penitentiary setting at his age with these type of physical disabilities would be a death sentence for Swamiji," said Jeff Kearney, his lead attorney.

Spokesmen for the ashram say they don`t know where guru is. Peter Spiegel, a wealthy devotee who posted a USD 1 million cash bond for guru`s release, testified that he doesn`t know his whereabouts, either.

The guru was released on a USD 1 million cash bond but failed to show up Monday in San Marcos for sentencing. The judge then ordered the bond revoked and issued the arrest warrant against guru.

He had already revoked Prakashanand`s US passport