By Ashraf Padanna/Thiruvananthapuram
A court in Kerala yesterday remanded in custody a Catholic priest accused of cheating farmers availing of bank loans.
The police arrested Fr Thomas Peelianickal on Tuesday on complaints by six farmers who claimed he and other officials of the NGO he heads cheated them of their money disbursed by banks.
The priest is the executive director of the Kuttanad Vikasana Samithy (KVS) or the society for the development of Kuttanad, under the Changanassery archdiocese.
The police accuse them of forging signatures of farmers to avail loans for collective farming. It was claimed that the farmers only became aware of the fraud after they started receiving repayment default notices.
Others linked to the fraud, including Rojo Joseph, a leader of the ruling coalition partner Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), are absconding since the police booked them three months ago.
For the past many years, the KVS has been working among the farmers of Kuttanad, an area that witnessed many suicides after the agrarian crisis, promoting self-help initiatives and environmental conservation.
Following the remand, dozens of women took out a march to the Changanassery Bishop House claiming they too had received recovery notices for loans they had not taken.
They wanted protection against banks attaching their properties. They protesters only dispersed after Archbishop Mar Joseph Perumthottam sought two weeks to resolve the crisis.
Crime Branch officials led by deputy superintendent of police V Vijayakumaran Nair arrested Fr Peelianickal from the KVS office at Ramankary after he did not respond to multiple police summons even as the others linked to the case are absconding.
“We have registered around 12 cases of fraud and found misappropriation of funds. In two cases, Fr Peelianickal had got bail earlier,” the officer told reporters.
The counsel for the priest said he had not cheated anyone but helped arrange loans for self-help groups of farmers. Fr Peelianickal will move court again tomorrow seeking bail and details of cases against him.
The farmers’ groups had registered complaints of fraud at various police stations, following which these were handed over to a special crime investigation unit.
Complainant Radhamani, a member of a self-help group, the Mithrakary Nel Karshaka Samithi, claimed the priest was involved in a fraud of Rs180,000.
Radhamani claimed Fr Peelianickal had arranged loans of Rs540,000 for each of their six-member group and took Rs30,000 as a commission from each member for the NGO. Fr Peelianickal promised to return the amount when they wanted, Radhamani claimed.
However, when they approached him a year later he was not ready to repay them, and the banks started to send out recovery notices.
Fr Peelianickal faces charges of criminal breach of trust, cheating and “dishonestly inducing delivery of property.”
Fr Peelianickal was booked on a complaint by six people from Mithrakary, who also accused KVS officials of threatening them when they demanded their money back.
However, he refuted the allegations stating that the KVS only recommended joint liability groups to the farmers and had nothing to do with the alleged fraud.
But many farmers allege the joint liability groups were “non-existent”, and loans were taken in their names without their knowledge.
“We recommended eligible farmer groups and the banks disbursed loans directly,” the priest had claimed when the cops booked them in March.
“If the farmers failed to repay, the bank would contact us. On our part, we would urge the farmers to clear the dues. We had no other dealings with them,” Fr Peelianickal insisted.
The archdiocese was founded the KVS in 1993 vowing to build a “self-reliant Kuttanad” working in close co-ordination with the government agencies.
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