Indian government panel refuses to impose death penalty for rape

Government panel set up to review legislation on rape says India needs to implement existing laws, not introduce tougher punishments.

NEW DELHI // To prevent rape, India needs to implement existing laws, not introduce tougher punishments such as the death penalty, a government panel set up to review legislation said yesterday.

Some protesters and politicians demanded the death penalty for rape cases in the days after an assault on a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in a moving bus. The panel's chairman, Justice J S Verma, rejected the idea outright.

"There was an overwhelming opinion against the death penalty; even women's groups opposed this," Mr Verma said. This recommendation was in line with the opinions of rights organisations concerned that harsh new laws would not solve the rising number of reported sexual assault cases in India.

The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had asked Mr Verma to look at possible amendments of criminal law in response to public anger after the rape and subsequent death of the student, who was assaulted with metal bars and dumped bleeding on a motorway on December 16.

The victim died of massive organ damage in a Singapore hospital two weeks after the attack.

Because the woman died of her injuries, the five accused have been charged with murder and face the death penalty if found guilty.

Hearings in the case begin in a fast-track sessions court today. The court must decide which of the prosecution's charges it will hear before a trial formally begins.

Separately, the Supreme Court is hearing a petition to move the case out of Delhi, after one of the accused said strong public opinion in the city would prejudice the case.

Mr Verma said he was shocked to hear top government officials congratulate the Delhi police chief's handling of the case, when, he said, police negligence was to blame for a climate of insecurity in New Delhi, known as India's "rape capital".