British women face cult murder plot trial

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The Independent Online
TWO BRITISH former disciples of the late Indian guru, the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, failed yesterday in a last-ditch attempt to prevent their extradition to the United States to face charges of conspiring to murder a federal prosecutor in Oregon. They could be jailed for up to 20 years.

Three Law Lords led by Lord Templeman refused to allow the women leave to appeal to a full House of Lords hearing against the decision to grant the U S extradition order. Having fought the order through the British courts for the past three years the women appear to have exhausted the legal pocess.

Within days U S marshals could be knocking at the London home of Sally Croft, 43, an accountant, and the Hertfordshire home of Susan Hagan, 46, an aromatherapist with two children, requiring their immediate presence in Portland, Oregon.

In the early 1980s Ma Prem Savita and Ma Anand Su, as they were known, were orange-clad followers of the Bhagwan. As two of the guru's most trusted aides they helped to build a commune on a 66,000-acre ranch near Antelope, Oregon.

The Bhagwan preached that enlightenment followed love, laughter and worship of his fleet of 91 Rolls-Royces. As the community's numbers swelled to thousands, so the Rajneeshis got increasingly involved in local politics, much to the irritation of the Oregonians, who began to resent the intruders. 'Bag a Bhagwan]]' bumper stickers started appearing and one opponent planted a bomb at the commune.

In response, some of the Bhagwan's followers, who did not include Hagan and Croft, injected the salmonella bacterium into food in local restaurants and some 750 people were taken to hospital. The prosecution case is that after Charles Turner, the U S attorney for Oregon, started filing deportation orders against commune members a murder plot was hatched which involved an elite paramilitary squad, 'The 38', whose members trained with Uzi semi-automatic weapons and numbered Croft and Hagan.

Mr Turner was not murdered and the women, who left the commune in 1985 disillusioned, insist they are innocent. Since a magistrates' court found that there was a prima facie case and Kenneth Clarke, then the Home Secretary, approved an extradition order they have repeatedly challenged the decision in the courts.

Yesterday, Edward Fitzgerald argued that the evidence against his clients was 'tainted and unreliable' because it was based on the affidavit of fellow disciples, convicted of immigration fraud and wire-tapping, who gave statements while plea bargaining to reduce their sentences.

But Clare Montgomery, for the Home Secretary, said there was 'no duty on the Secretary of State to consider the weight or quality of the evidence' once magistrates had judged that a prima facie case existed.

After yesterday's judgment Ms Croft said she was 'in a state of shock' and Mrs Hagan said she was 'devastated'. They believe they will not get a fair hearing in Oregon because of the animosity towards cult members.

(Photograph omitted)