Religious guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. PHOTO: CNN
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Court frees spiritual leader convicted of murder and rape.

A religious guru, revered by millions, who was convicted of murder and rape, has been granted temporary release from jail in India for the fourth time in the past year. This has sparked anger among activists, who argue that it sets a dangerous precedent in a country that is grappling with the issue of violence against women.

Sanjeev Verma, a senior official from the city of Rohtak in the northern state of Haryana, says that Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, head of Dera Sacha Sauda spiritual organization, was granted temporary release on January 21 and is expected to remain free until earlu March. This marks the fourth time he has been released from jail in the past year.

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Singh was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2017 after being raping two of his followers. In 2019, he received a life sentence for the murder of a journalist who had exposed the sexual abuse of women within his group.

Authorities had previously granted temporary release to Singh in February, June, and October last year, which had already angered women’s rights advocates in the country.

This latest release marks the fourth time that Singh has been allowed to leave prison, further fueling criticism of the Indian justice system’s handling of cases involving sexual assault and violence against women.

“See how the rapist whom you let free in society is slapping the system,” Swati Maliwal, chairperson for Delhi’s Commission for Women, said on Twitter, sharing a video of Singht cutting a cake with a sword four days after his latest release.

“Great heroes once protected the weak with the sword, today this rapist is celebrating with the sword,” she wrote.

The release of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh has faced opposition from the Sikh group, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.

Despite the heinous nature of his crimes, Singh continues to maintain a cult-like following, and his Dera Sacha Sauda group has welcomed his latest release. In a tweet, they expressed their joy, stating that they were “thrilled” with the news of his temporary release.

Since his release from prison last month, Singh has been active on social media, preaching to his nearly 5 million followers on Instagram. He has been offering “parenting tips” and releasing songs that discourage drug use.

Despite opposition from some who are calling for him to be put back behind bars, court documents indicate that similar petitions challenging Singh’s previous temporary release periods were dismissed by the Punjab and Haryana High Courts last year.

Sanjeev Verma, the Rohtak district official, declined to answer CNN’s questions regarding the reasons for Singh’s release, stating that the matter was before the court.

CNN has attempted to contact the Haryana government but has not received a response. In October of last year, when Singh was previously released on temporary leave, the state’s chief minister, Manohar Lal Khattar, refused to comment on the case when speaking to reporters.

“It is the job of the court to give bail or parole to any person,” he said.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, also known as the “guru of bling” due to his extravagant lifestyle, has amassed a significant and devoted following both in and outside India. His Dera Sacha Sauda group operates ashrams, or places of worships, across ten states and union territories in India, and claims to have 60 million followers worldwide.

Singh holds considerable influence and is regarded as a cultural icon and performer among his supporters. He has starred in several films and music videos, including “Messenger of God,” where he plays the hero who saves India.

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The 2017 rape verdict against Singh led to riots in northern India that resulted in 36 deaths and hundreds of injuries. As a result, the government tightened security in Haryana on the day of his sentencing and shut down internet and SMS services in some parts of the state.

Singh is among several revered gurus in India who have been accused of violent crimes, including rape. Earlier this month, self-proclaimed spiritual guru Asaram Bapu was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of rape and sodomy, adding to his existing life sentence for the rape of a 16-year-old girl in 2018.