03 February 2013

India's Response To The Death Of A Woman Who Was Gang-Raped

In much of the world--including, at times, my hometown of New York--rape is still treated as "just" a sexual offense rather than the violent crime it is.

What that means is that sentences are relatively light.  For example, in India, rapists faced seven to ten years in prison.  Granted, I wouldn't want to spend that much time incarcerated.  However, compared to other violent offenses, rape wasn't punished harshly.

That may change.  Unfortunately, it took the death of a 23-year-old woman who was brutally gang-raped for this change to come about.

Because of a "gag" order, the victim and her family cannot be identified.  However, Indian media has reported that she was a physiotherapy student who was attacked by six men on a bus.  She died in Singapore hospital, where she was sent for treatment, nearly two weeks after the attack.

In response to this awful crime, President Pranab Mukherjee assented to new laws proposed by cabinet ministers.  According to the new ordinances, the sentences for gang rape or rapes committed by police officers or other persons in authority will be doubled and can be extended to life without parole.   The law also includes a new set of offenses, including voyerism and stalking.  

There has even been discussion of the death penalty for the young woman's attackers.  Although Indian law provides for capital punishment, officials say that it is used "only in the rarest of rare cases". Three months ago, the last surviving gunman of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks was hanged.  It was the first state execution in eight years.

While the new laws, if passed (even without a provision for the death penalty), will punish some rapists more severely than perpetrators of similar crimes have been penalized in the past, women's rights advocates still don't think it goes far enough.  They say that, while the provisions for longer sentences are welcome, the law still doesn't have the teeth to fight sex crimes against women.  Others criticized the government for not holding a public debate or hearing on the law.

According to a defense lawyer, the court will start hearing evidence from witnesses next Tuesday and that verdicts will be handed down "very soon" on five of the perpetrators.  The sixth is being tried in a juvenile court.

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