4 Jan 2011

Texas prosecutors challenge Hindu guru's claim that he is too ill to face trial for molesting girls, judge orders medical exam

The Statesman - Austin, Texas October 11, 2010

How healthy is Hindu guru charged with molestation?

By Eric Dexheimer | The Statesman

This spring, the trial of Prakashanand Saraswati, the Indian guru who has been charged with groping two teen-aged girls more than a decade ago, was reset because of a back operation his physicians said would make it difficult for the 81-year-old spiritual leader to travel to Texas from India.

Now, prosecutors are questioning how truthful that claim was after Prakashanand, also known as Shree Swamiji, showed up last week in Austin — a month before his canceled trial was supposed to occur, according to court filings.

Prosecutors “recently learned that the defendant has returned to the United States from India,” Hays County District Attorney Sherri Tibbe wrote in a filing in Hays County District Court last week. “Previously, representations were made to the Court that due to the defendant’s medical condition he was unable to stand trial for this offense” on November 1.

At Tibbe’s request, District Court Judge Charles Ramsay has ordered Prakashanand to remain in the country and submit to an examination by a physician selected by prosecutors “so that the state may independently verify the defendant’s medical condition and his ability to stand trial.”

According to the judge’s order, the exam must be completed by October 22. It is unclear whether the examination has occurred yet, or been scheduled. Tibbe declined to comment.

Prabhakari Devi, vice president of JKP Barsana Dham, the ashram south of Austin that Prakashanand founded 15 years ago, said Hays County prosecutors were misconstruing the guru’s medical restrictions.

“It’s really distressing to us,” she said.

Prabhakari said that while doctors initially recommended Prakashanand refrain from travel following a January lower back operation, today he is primarily prevented from sitting for any long periods of time. “He’s still in a lot of pain,” she said, adding that the guru continues to receive medical treatment in India, Mexico and the United States.

On the recent 14-hour plane trip from India to the United States, she added, the guru was able to lie down for much of the trip. But a lengthy trial, during which the aged spiritual leader would be required to sit for as long as six hours a day over a series of days, would still be too difficult for him, she said.

Prakashanand, who is charged with 20 counts of indecency, has been barred from Barsana Dham’s grounds since May 2008, soon after his arrest at a Washington D.C. airport. He has denied the charges.

Following his apprehension, the guru was released on $1 million bond and ordered to give up his passport. Later, Prakashanand’s lawyers asked that his passport be returned and that he be allowed to travel to India, where he keeps a second home.

Hays County prosecutors balked, but one of Prakashanand’s followers, an infomercial executive named Peter Spiegel, pledged $10 million of his own money to guarantee his spiritual leader’s return to the Hays County courthouse if he were allowed to travel.

In her filing last week, Tibbe also asked the judge to confiscate Prakashanand’s passport, but Ramsay has not ruled on that, pending the medical exam.

[see related link below for more information on this case]

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