Case ignites moral outrage, mass demonstrations
NEW DELHI, India, April 16, (Agencies): Eight men accused of raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl pleaded not guilty Monday to the horrific crime that has sparked revulsion and brought thousands to India’s streets in protest. Four police and a Hindu temple custodian are among those accused of gang raping and killing a Muslim girl from a poor tribe in Jammu and Kashmir state where the highlycharged case has stoked long-simmering religious tensions.
The accused men appeared in court in the city of Kathua on Monday for the first time since being arrested in February for the girl’s murder. Ankur Sharma, a lawyer for the accused, said the men had pleaded not guilty were willing to take a lie-detector test.
The court adjourned the case for procedural reasons, he added. “The court has directed that chargesheet copies should be provided to all the accused.
The next date of hearing is April 28,” Sharma told reporters. The girl was kidnapped, drugged and raped over five days at the Hindu temple in January before being strangled and bludgeoned with a rock. The case ignited moral outrage and mass demonstrations across India after details of her gruesome death were made public by police last week.
The temple’s custodian, retired public servant Sanji Ram, is accused of conspiring with four police officers, a friend, his son and a juvenile nephew to kill the girl and destroy crucial evidence.
Scenes of lawyers trying to stop police from entering court to file charges against the accused — all Hindus — evoked disgust and a warning from India’s highest court against any attempts to obstruct justice. The case has heightened fears of communal tensions in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state.
The accused allegedly plotted the crime to drive the nomadic Muslim community from a part of Jammu, a southern region that is Hindu dominated. Muslim activists have condemned what they see as a crime against their community and some Hindu groups have argued that the accused had been unfairly charged.
On Monday, a lawyer representing the victim’s family filed a petition in the Supreme Court, requesting the trial be relocated from the restive state. The lawyer, Deepika Singh Rajawat, said she had been receiving death threats for “daring to pursue the case”.
Last week the Supreme Court ruled that the media must not reveal the girl’s identity in their reporting of the case. Two state ministers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have resigned after attending a rally in defence of the accused.
The ruling party has also been accused of trying to shield one of its state lawmakers in Uttar Pradesh after a 17-year-old girl accused the powerful politician of raping her last year. Kuldeep Singh Sengar was only arrested last week, despite the girl’s family trying to file charges against him for nearly a year.
The two cases have stirred memories of the mass demonstrations that followed the gang rape and murder of a student in New Delhi in 2012.
The crime attracted international headlines and saw rape laws overhauled but high numbers of assaults persist, with 40,000 rape cases reported every year. In related news, days after a lawmaker from India’s ruling party was arrested in connection with a teenager’s rape, a sexual attack on an 11-year-old girl was reported on Sunday in Gujarat, the latest in a string of cases that have sparked protests across the country.
Protests calling for justice were held in several cities, echoing the mass rallies against sexual violence in 2012 and piling pressure on Modi, who must hold elections by May 2019. Modi has promised to take action. Activists accuse authorities of failing to protect women and of moving too slowly to investigate and arrest perpetrators.
The protests were fuelled in part by the arrest of a lawmaker from the Bharatiya Janata Party last week in connection with the rape of a teenager in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which the ruling party governs.
In the southern city of Thiruvananthapuram, protesters formed a human chain, while in Mumbai, hundreds, including film celebrities, called for the death penalty for rapists. In New Delhi they called for rape trials to be completed in six months.
In the western Gujarati city of Surat, where the latest case took place, men and women held a silent candlelight march. Gujarat is Modi’s home state, where he was the Chief Minister from 2001 until he took national office in 2014. “The body was recovered on April 6 by the side of a highway and, according to a post mortem report, the girl was sexually assaulted and murdered on April 5,” Surat’s police commissioner, Satish Sharma, told Reuters. He said the victim — who was 11 years old, according to the post-mortem — had not yet been identified and that police from neighbouring states have been asked to help find her family.