A Indian court has sentenced self-proclaimed Indian spiritual guru Asaram Bapu to life imprisonment for raping a 16-year-old girl in 2013.
The guilty verdict was handed down Wednesday amid high security at Jodhpur Central Jail in the western state of Rajasthan, according to local Police Commissioner Ashok Rathore.
Asaram’s spokesperson Neelam Dubey told reporters that his legal team will challenge the verdict in India’s High Court.
The arrest of Asaram in 2013 prompted violent clashes between his supporters and police in several major cities.
Before the verdict was handed down, police were placed on high-alert across three states, amid the threat of further violence. The three states, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana, are home to large numbers of Asaram devotees.
Special prohibitory orders remain in place in Jodhpur, with the Rajasthan High Court imposing Section 144, which prohibits the gathering of more than four people in an area, until April 30.
Security has also been stepped up around the alleged victim’s house, in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Prior to the verdict, Asaram’s spokesperson rejected suggestions that the guru’s followers were planning to protest a potential guilty verdict.
“What kind of protest?” said Dubey. “We have full respect for the courts. If the lower court verdict doesn’t go our way, we will approach the High Court or Supreme Court.”
The heightened security has echoes of last year’s trial of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, head of the spiritual sect Dera Sacha Sauda, who was found guilty of raping two of his followers, in a high-profile trial that saw at least 36 people killed and hundreds injured after riots erupted in the wake of the verdict.
Asaram, 77, who is described as on his website as “spiritual revolutionist” and a “great teacher,” is one of India’s best-known spiritual gurus.
Called simply “Bapuji” or “father” by his followers, Asaram first rose to prominence in the 1970s. In the decades since, he has built up a vast religious empire that includes 400 ashrams, or religious schools, across India, as well as numerous global outreach programs.
Asaram was found guilty of sexually assaulting a then 16-year-old follower during a religious ceremony intended to cure her of evil spirits, held at his ashram in Manai village near Jodhpur, on August 15, 2013.
The girl had been brought to Asaram by her parents, though they were not present during the time of the alleged assault.
Asaram, who was 74 years old at the time of the incident, claimed he was physically incapable of rape, but police argued that medical tests found him to be in good shape.
Asaram’s legal team had also questioned the age of the girl, claiming she was not a minor and had repeated the seventh grade.
“As far as our legal views are concerned, we have tried our level best. The girl who was called as innocent was above 18 years. They haven’t provided paperwork like a birth certificate,” Dubey said before Wednesday’s court ruling.
In October 2013, the Rajasthan High Court in Jodhpur dismissed the claims, stating various school certificates listed her date of birth as July 4, 1997.
Asaram’s sentencing comes on the back of a series of particularly brutal rape cases in India, including two alleged unrelated attacks on girls aged 16 and 8.
The fallout from the cases has put pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which opponents accuse of defending the men implicated in both attacks.
Modi has since defended the actions of his government, and described the issue of sexual violence as “a matter of great concern for the country.”
The reaction to the recent cases, which has seen thousands of people take to the streets in protest, has been compared to the nationwide outcry over the 2012 gang rape of 23-year-old physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh, who died from injuries sustained in the attack.
Just over a week after her death, Asaram landed himself in controversy when he accused Singh of being partially responsible for the assault.
Addressing the attack, Asaram was quoted as saying that “the victim is as guilty as her rapists.” Adding that “It takes two sides to make a mistake.”
Around 100 sexual assaults are reported to police in India every day, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. There were nearly 39,000 alleged attacks in 2016, an increase of 12% on the previous year.
CNN’s Edwin Thomas contributed reporting.