Target of sect plot accuses Britain of bias

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THE FORMER Federal Attorney targeted in the murder plot of which two British women were found guilty in an Oregon court on Friday welcomed the verdicts yesterday, but warned that the pair might yet be tempted to skip American justice.

Sally-Anne Croft, 45, and Susan Hagan, 48, were convicted of taking part in a 1985 conspiracy to assassinate Charles Turner, the then US Federal Attorney in Oregon, while living in the state as disciples of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

After reading the jury's verdicts, Judge Malcolm Marsh allowed the pair to go free pending sentencing in mid-October. Tomorrow he will decide whether the women, who must remain in Oregon, should in the meantime have to wear electronic tags.

Mr Turner, one of 29 prosecution witnesses to testify during the three- week trial, said: "They fled the country once before, and someone smarter than I am once said that the past is an indication of the future."

Mr Turner, who was not harmed and is now retired, also accused the British media of biased reporting in favour of the women. The press, he said, had implied that the case should not have been prosecuted, andthat it was time to "let bygones be bygones". "If the Queen was the recipient of this kind of conduct," he asked, "would they not say that that was intolerable?"

Among those predicting harsh sentences for the women was Jim McHugh, a lawyer representing a former Rajneesh member battling extradition from South Africa to face the same charges.

"I would think they might get somewhere between 10 and 20 years," he said. Technically, Croft and Hagan could face life, although that is improbable.

Scant comfort was offered the women by Britain's Honorary Consul in Portland, Andrew Hay, who arrived at the courthouse in time for the verdicts with their confiscated passports in an envelope under his arm

"Obviously, there is no way in which I am going to release the passports to them now," Mr Hay said afterwards. He added that he had no complaints about the trial or its conclusion: "I think they were fairly treated. I would say that this was as fair a jury as they would have got anywhere."

Both Croft and Hagan were senior members of the leadership of the Rajneesh commune, established on a 100-square-mile ranch by the Bhagwan's disciples in 1981.

Croft, now an accountant, was in charge of the cult's finances, while Hagan ran the Rajneesh Investment Corporation and was head of the commune's heavily-armed security force.

Mr McHugh was dismayed at the verdicts, pointing out that the prosecution case had depended principally on the testimonies of other former co-conspirators, some of whom had either been imprisoned, had cut plea-bargain deals or had admitted to lying previously while under oath.

"I'm very disappointed that a case made of the testimonies of six perjurers could lead to these convictions," Mr McHugh said.

The defence lawyers of Croft and Hagan are expected to lodge appeals early next week. The prosecution, meanwhile, is considering what kind of sentence to urge on the judge.

The final length of imprisonment, which will come without the possibility of parole, will be determined by Judge Marsh on the basis of pre-sentencing reports on the women's past behaviour and characters.