March 26, 2017 12:24 am
Updated: March 26, 2017 2:34 pm

Former Vancouver resident acquitted of manslaughter in India

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Twenty-eight-year-old Narges Ashtari can’t find the right words to describe how she feels after being acquitted of manslaughter charges.

“I feel numb.”

In 2010, Ashtari left her life in Vancouver and set up the Prishan Foundation to help orphaned girls and blind children in India’s state of Odisha. Ashtari knows what it’s like to lose a mother and father. Both her parents died when she was a child.

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Two-and-a-half years ago, her life changed when the son of one of her co-workers died at her charity foundation’s picnic in Odisha. The child’s body was never found. In December 2016, Ashtari was sentenced to a year in jail and was fined $6,000 CDN by the Sub Divisional Judicial Magistrate (SDJM) court in Rayagada. That’s when the humanitarian worker became the centre of an investigation.

According to the public prosecutor, Sachidanand Khardanga, Ashtari and her associates took six children bathing in the Nagavali River where they were accidentally washed away. He says five were rescued except for Aseem Jilakara, who could not be found. The prosecution said there was a strong current in the river that day and blames Ashtari for organizing the picnic in that area. The parents of the young child were also by the river, but Khardanga said the head of the foundation should be held responsible for Jilakara’s death and alleges it was negligence on Ashtari’s part.

The parents and a relative of the child presumed drowned testified in court, claiming they saw Ashtari and some of her colleagues forcibly bathe some of the children in the river. The father, Peter Jilakara, says he jumped into the river to rescue his boy.

READ MORE: Ashtari believes she was the victim of a corruption scandal

Other court witnesses do not support those allegations. One of those witnesses, Rajesh Kadraka, testified that Ashtari had “no involvement” in the alleged incident. The judge declared Kadraka and those other witnesses as ‘hostile’ and concluded that “nothing substantial could be elicited from them.”

According to court documents obtained by Global News, there were some ‘”discrepancies’”and “exaggerations” on the part of the parents. However, back in December of last year, the court concluded that since the parents are from a rural area, “exaggerations are bound to occur in such truthful witnesses.”

Supporters of Narges Ashtari held a rally in front of the Consulate General of India in Vancouver, Dec. 12.

Hassan Behgouei

Ashtari appealed the court’s ruling. On Saturday, she was acquitted of manslaughter charges and entitled to compensation.

According to the most recent judgment, “the appellant was wrongfully prosecuted without having reasonable cause. As such I am of the unhesitant opinion that she is entitled to get compensation for the loss and injury caused to her as that of victims of crime.”

Speaking over the phone in Odisha, Ashtari said that in terms of compensation, she “doesn’t want it at all.”

She’s eligible for an exit visa in the next two days but still hasn’t made a decision on whether to stay or go.

No matter what, she said she will be involved in managing the Prishan Foundation in some form.

“I love my children so much,” she added.

Friends and family in Vancouver say they are overjoyed with the news.

“I’m looking forward to the next chapter in Narges’ life because she is bound to do great things and will never stop helping others,” said Erica Dentinger.

She met Ashtari seven years ago and started the Justice for Narges-Vancouver Facebook group . Dentinger also organized a rally outside the Indian consulate in Vancouver on Dec. 12.

Ahead of Saturday’s verdict, a protest took place in support of Ashtari in Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar.

Ashtari said she’s been touched by the support, but would like to get back to dedicating her life to helping orphaned children.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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