India backs plan to use death penalty for rape

The legal order by cabinet would increase maximum penalties to 20 years for rape and life imprisonment for gang rape.

The Indian government plans introduce harsher penalties for rape, including the death sentence, in response to a nationwide outcry after the gang rape and murder of a young woman in the capital in December. Sajjad Hussain / AFP
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NEW DELHI // The Indian government is set to introduce harsher penalties for rape, including the death sentence, in response to a nationwide outcry at the deadly gang rape of a young woman in the capital in December.

"We believe that this is a progressive piece of legislation and is consistent with felt sensitivities of the nation in the aftermath of an outrageous gang rape in New Delhi," the law minister, Ashwini Kumar, told reporters late on Friday.

The legal order by cabinet would increase maximum penalties to 20 years for rape and life imprisonment for gang rape. The order would then need approval of the president, Pranab Mukherjee, before becoming law and parliament must ratify it within six weeks of the start of the next session, which begins February 21.

The proposed changes are based on the recommendations of a panel set up by the government after the December 16 incident to examine strengthening the laws for crimes against women.

Headed by Jagdish Sharan Verma, a retired chief justice of India, the commission reportedly sifted through 80,000 emails and received more than 1,000 pages of recommendations a day submitted by rights groups, political parties and private citizens before submitting a 500-page report last month.

Shwetasree Majumder, one of 16 lawyers who assisted the three-member panel, said that the committee did not recommend the death penalty in cases where a rape leads to death of the victim or leaves her in a "persistent vegetative state". However, the cabinet went beyond the panel's recommendations by providing for the death sentence in such cases.

Ms Majumder said the report looked at various aspects of India's society and its attitude to women, including the role of patriarchy, with a particular focus on khap panchayats - the influential, conservative village councils that are known to issue diktats ranging from banning women from wearing jeans and carrying cellphones to discouraging them from marrying outside their caste

"If any body, whether panchayat or grass-roots level organisations has come to know or are implicit in committing an act [of violence against women], then the liability will be pinned on them, even if they do anything to hush up the crime," Ms Majumder said.

She said the recommendations sought to ensure that other forms of sexual harassment - from stalking and voyeurism to acid attacks - would be covered under revised laws.

The panel also suggested police reforms and streamlining of the medical tests used to prove of sexual assault.

To counter one of the biggest complaints against the police - that they often refuse to accept a victim's complaint or file a report - the panel suggested that a woman's statement be directly recorded in front of a magistrate.

"This does away with the disparity in the statement, in terms of what the cops wrote," Ms Majumdar said. "The biggest gap is between the committing of the offence and the filing of the report. If that can be shrunk, things will go a long way."

The outcry over the December 16 gang rape has also prompted police to re-examine earlier cases.

In Kerala, the Central Bureau of Investigation has ordered the reopening of a 2004 case in which a 15-year-old was allegedly gang raped, including by politicians. The girl and five family members committed suicide after the rape.

The Guwahati High Court in Assam has ordered the reopening a 2004 case of alleged rape and murder by troops stationed in the neighbouring state of Manipur. The victim was allegedly dragged out of her home during the night of July 22 by members of the Assam Rifles and her bullet-riddled body was found later that night.

The oldest case to be reopened is the so-called 1996 Suryanelli rape case, named for the village in Kerala where the incident occurred. In that incident, a 16-year-old girl was kidnapped by a bus driver and sexually assaulted for 40 days by 42 men. Under public pressure, in 1999, the Kerala government set up the first ever special court to try sexual assaults. A year later, 35 people were convicted. Five years later, the Kerala High Court overturned the sentences, acquitting all but one of the accused, the bus driver. He was fined and released for time served.

Last week, the Supreme Court asked the Kerala High Court to re-examine the case and deliver a judgment within six months.

"There is a rule of law but there are people who are corruptible. Processes get deferred and people use their money to defer court hearings. Those are tactics that are used all over the place and our laws are not strict enough," said Kirti Singh, a lawyer and president of the All India Democratic Women's Association.