India tightened its laws on sexual assaults following the gang rape and murder of a student in a moving bus in New Delhi, responding to nationwide public outrage over growing insecurity facing women.
President Pranab Mukherjee yesterday gave his assent to an ordinance that among other changes allows rape that leads to the death of the victim to be treated as a capital offense. The harsher regime must be approved by lawmakers within six weeks of parliament meeting, with the next session of the assembly scheduled to begin Feb. 21.
“The stringent provisions in the ordinance will have a deterrent effect on potential criminals,” Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said in a press conference today in New Delhi. “These provisions will ensure fair and speedy trials.”
Under intense public pressure, the government has changed the criminal code without waiting for parliament to reconvene. The brutal attack on the medical student on Dec. 16 shocked India and reverberated around the world, triggering street protests and drawing attention to the scale of sexual violence against women in the world’s largest democracy.
The trial of five men charged with conspiracy to abduct the 23-year-old woman, sexually assault and murder her will start Feb. 5 in a fast-track court in New Delhi. A sixth accused has been judged to be a juvenile and is facing a separate judicial process. All have pleaded not guilty.
Going beyond the recommendations of a panel headed by retired chief justice J.S. Verma -- set up to suggest law changes following the bus attack -- the government has stiffened penalties to allow for capital punishment if an assault leaves the victim in a persistent vegetative state.
Voyeurism, stalking, and attacks using acid will now be met with tougher punishments, according to the new laws.
Tougher sentencing will only address part of the problem, said Indu Agnihotri, director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi. “Other issues like speedy justice, rehabilitation of victims and a gender-sensitive response” to the victims of sex crimes are needed.
The six men are accused of beating and assaulting the physiotherapy student before throwing her and a male companion from the vehicle as it drove along streets in the south of the capital. The woman, who was flown to Singapore for treatment paid for by the Indian government, died in hospital Dec. 29.
The gang rape set off a charged debate in a country where a woman was raped every 22 minutes in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. There were 572 cases of rape reported in New Delhi that year, a 23 percent increase from 2008. The rise may reflect a greater confidence in reporting assaults.
In addition to the changes outlined today, the government said it has taken other steps to stem violent assaults. The identities of people convicted of crimes against women will be displayed on crime-fighting websites.
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