Bhagwan women to be freed pending conspiracy trial

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TWO British women extradited to the United States to face murder conspiracy charges will walk free this weekend after a federal magistrate in Portland, Oregon, ruled that they should not remain behind bars until their trial.

Judge Donald Ashmanskas agreed to grant Sally-Anne Croft, 44, and Susan Hagan, 47, conditional release - but ordered that they should wear an electronic monitoring device, saying that there was 'a significant risk' that they would flee as well as 'convincing evidence that they pose a danger to the community'.

But he rejected a request by federal prosecutors to demand a dollars 500,000 ( pounds 300,000) bond from the women, who are accused of conspiring to murder a senior public official when they were members of a cult in central Oregon, run by the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

The news was a triumph for the women, who were led into the US District courthouse in handcuffs, looking gaunt and exhausted after spending their first night in Oregon in a county jail.

They were extradited from Britain on Wednesday, amid considerable concern over whether they can receive a fair trial in the north- western state, where 'Rajneeshees' are loathed.

The magistrate imposed eight other conditions - including an order to surrender their passports, that they had no contact with their alleged victim, and that they waive their extradition rights should they flee to another country. A trial date was set for 27 September.

Federal prosecutors allege that nearly a decade ago the women were members of an elite Rajneeshee hit squad which planned to kill Charles Turner, then Oregon's top federal prosecutor, who was heading an investigation into massive immigration fraud in the cult.

Ms Croft, an accountant who was the Rajneeshees' finance officer, is accused of authorising the purchase of guns; Ms Hagan is alleged to have attended a meeting where the plot was discussed.

Yesterday's proceedings, in which the two entered 'not guilty' pleas, were watched by Howard Moses, 57, a freelance writer from Portland, who was one of the Bhagwan's followers. Mr Moses said that he felt compelled to attend because he had a 'warm and loving connection' with the women. 'It's absurd to describe them as dangerous,' he said afterwards.

Their return to the US was welcomed by residents in Antelope, a tiny settlement 18 miles from the 66,000-acre ranch taken over by the late Bhagwan, and his thousands of followers. In 1982, the hamlet was renamed the 'City of Rajneesh' by the cult, after it seized control of the local council.

Some locals bitterly recall how the saffron-robed Rajneeshee police force patrolled near their homes at 3am each night, armed with automatic weapons. Streets were renamed after 'enlightened masters'; the only store was renamed 'Zorba the Buddha'. They also remember how a group of the Bhagwan's disciples ran what the Federal Bureau of Investigation has described as the biggest illegal wiretapping operation in US history, eavesdropping on local officials and police officers.

Nor have they forgotten how 750 people suffered food poisoning after a faction within the cult planted salmonella bugs in restaurant food one election day in an effort to stop people voting. The cult disbanded in chaos in 1985.