By Malini Menon
NEW DELHI, April 25 (Reuters) - A court in India's western state of Rajasthan on Wednesday convicted a self-styled religious preacher of raping a teenage girl, police said, the latest in a series of sexual abuse accusations against such figures.
The case highlights the Indian heartland's fascination with spiritual gurus, who wield immense influence for their ability to mobilise millions of adherents, amass untaxed funds and find favour with politicians.
A judge delivered the verdict in a jail in the city of Jodhpur, where Asumal Harpalani, commonly known as Asaram Bapu, has been held since September 2013, for fear of violence by his followers.
The 77-year-old had been denied bail a dozen times.
"The conviction is under the section of rape and POCSO, which is sexual harassment of a young girl," said state police chief O.P. Galhotra.
India's Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act permits lifetime jail terms for sexual assault of children, and was recently amended to allow the death penalty for the rape of girls younger than 12.
The crime carries a minimum sentence of ten years in jail, with sentencing set for later on Wednesday, although prosecutors are seeking a life term. Two of the preacher's aides were also convicted, and two more acquitted.
"I am waiting for the sentencing and I hope he gets the maximum sentence of life imprisonment," said Kiran Jha Thakur, the founder of Kalpana, a non-government body that helped the victim's family pursue the case.
A spokeswoman for Harpalani said his lawyers were considering options for a possible appeal.
"We've full respect in our judicial system," said the spokeswoman, Neelam Dubey, adding that the judgment would not affect the activities of followers at their ashram. "Our legal team will decide what the next step is."
The case dates from August 2013, when the 16-year-old girl accused the preacher of sexually assaulting her at his ashram in Jodhpur, about 335 km (210 miles) from the state capital of Jaipur.
The girl, who reportedly sought to be rid of evil spirits, said in her complaint that she was asked to perform oral sex and was touched inappropriately, media said.
Security forces in four states - Rajasthan and neighbouring western Gujarat, as well as northern Uttar Pradesh and Haryana - went on high alert, for fear of a backlash from supporters.
Last year, followers of another guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, ran amok after he was found guilty of rape, unleashing violence that killed more than 30.
Nationwide outrage after a series of child rapes over the last two weeks spurred Prime Minister Narendra Modi's cabinet to approve the death penalty for the rape of girls younger than 12.
(Reporting by Malini Menon Editing by Clarence Fernandez)
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