A special CBI court in Panchkula on Friday convicted Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in a rape case, in a verdict pronounced amid unprecedented security cover, over 15 years after an anonymous sexual exploitation complaint was registered against him. 

Special CBI judge Jagdeep Singh found the 50-year old godman guilty under section 376 (rape) and 506 (criminal intimidation) of the IPC and said the quantum of sentence will be pronounced on August 28. The punishment can be a jail term not less than seven years but may even extend to life imprisonment, CBI counsel HPS Verma told reporters outside the court. 

Ram Rahim reached the court in Panchkula, a tiny satellite town of Chandigarh, over five hours after he left the sect-headquarters at Sirsa by road at about 9 am. Sirsa is about 260 kms from Chandigarh. 

Army personnel and central paramilitary forces took positions around the CBI court complex in Panchkula, even as the area close to the complex was sealed. As tension mounted, the Punjab and Haryana High Court directed officers of the Haryana government to use weapons or force, if required, to tackle the situation arising out of the verdict. 

The sexual exploitation case was registered against the Dera chief in December 2002 by the CBI on the directions of the Punjab and Haryana High Court after an anonymous letter was written to the then Chief Justice about the alleged sexual exploitation of two 'sadhvis' (female followers) by him. The Dera chief, however, has denied these charges. The case was registered eight months after the then Chief Justice received the letter. Ram Rahim is also an accused in two murder cases. 

The Dera chief, who enjoys 'Z' category security, travelled in a convoy that included several SUVs to reach Panchkula. As the Dera head left the sect headquarters at Sirsa, some of the followers standing on the roadside turned hysterical and held up the cavalcade for a few minutes. The Dera chief was accompanied by a number of his own security guards in the cavalcade. 

The followers, mostly young men, squatted on the road just in front of the cavalcade. However, the police immediately evicted them following which the Dera chief continued his onward journey to Panchkula. 

Tens of thousands of 'premis', what Dera followers are popularly known, have descended on Panchkula, which has virtually turned into a security fortress. Amid tension ahead of the verdict, the Dera head earlier appealed to his followers to maintain calm and peace.