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Killer of India’s ‘Bandit Queen’ gets life sentence

Phoolan Devi, renowned as India’s ‘Bandit Queen,’ is shown in April, 1998.

SHERWIN CRASTO/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The upper-caste killer of India's "Bandit Queen" was sentenced Thursday to life in prison for gunning down the outlaw-turned-legislator who was idolized as a champion of the lower castes.

Phoolan Devi roamed central India's desolate valleys in the 1970s and 1980s, claiming to have robbed and killed landowners who were exploiting poor, landless farmers. After surrendering and serving 11 years in prison, she became a member of Parliament in 1996.

She was still a lawmaker in 2001 when she was killed outside her New Delhi house in what police say was a revenge attack by a trio of upper-caste men.

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On Thursday, Judge Bharat Parashar sentenced Sher Singh Rana to life and fined him 100,000 rupees ($1,650 U.S.) for the murder. Rana's relatives immediately said he would appeal.

Rana, 38, was convicted last week of murder and conspiracy after a 10-year trial. Ten others accused of involvement in the shooting were acquitted, including Rana's brother. The judge said there was insufficient evidence to link them to the crime.

"Why have you convicted only me?" Rana asked the judge after Friday's verdict. "How can I alone commit the murder?"

Witnesses at the time of the killing said two men shot Devi before fleeing in a car driven by an accomplice.

Phoolan Devi's sister, Rukmani, told reporters outside the court Thursday that she was not satisfied with the acquittals and would demand a new trial.

The slaying is widely seen as part of a revenge cycle fought out between upper and lower castes. When he was arrested in 2001, Rana told police he had killed Devi to avenge the 1981 massacre of 21 high-caste men. Devi said she had killed the men because they had gang-raped her.

Devi was a mythic hero to India's lower castes. A member of the "boatmen" clan, she became a bandit at 16 when she was kidnapped by the gang she eventually led. Over 70 cases for murder, kidnapping and extortion were pending against her when she died.

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Her life inspired dozens of books, films and even an opera. She became widely known to Western audiences through the 1994 film Bandit Queen. But Devi disliked it, saying the film depicted her as "a sniveling woman."

Devi's killer has become a minor cult figure as well, hailed by some members of his Thakkur warrior caste for the shooting. On Thursday, about 50 young men, many sporting flashy gold chains and curled moustaches, huddled outside the court in support of Rana.

"He's a tiger," one cried out after the verdict.

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