India Criticized For Changing Rape Laws Too Hastily

The Indian government was slow to comprehend the mass revulsion after a fatal gang rape made headlines across the globe in December. A new ordinance effectively overhauls the current statutes on what constitutes sex crimes. It allows for capital punishment in cases of sexual assault that cause death.

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In New Delhi, prosecutors called their first witness to the stand in the trial of five men accused of a gang-rape and the murder that's horrified India and the world. The victim's male companion, who was beaten and left for dead alongside her, appeared in court in a wheelchair to testify.

Indians are eager to see justice done, but as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, the realities of government and the courts are dampening expectations.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The testimony from the only eyewitness to the assault, the male friend of the victim, will be key to the prosecution. Police say the software engineer was beaten with an iron rod, while the young woman was dragged to the rear of the bus and repeatedly raped.

The victim herself stood just 5 feet 3 inches tall. But her ordeal has taken on monumental proportions. Eighty witnesses are due to be called in the trial that will recount how an innocent Sunday night outing to see the film the "Life of Pi" turned into a grisly crime that shocked the world.

The five accused men have all pled not guilty to 12 charges that include murder, gang-rape, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy. If found guilty, they face the death penalty.

The media is restrained from reporting on the proceedings. The trial is closed, despite the enormous public interest in the case that has raised the urgency of the issue of sexual assault to the top of India's political agenda.

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MCCARTHY: The Indian government that was slow to comprehend the mass revulsion of the December attack is now being accused of acting too hastily. Demonstrators in central Delhi yesterday chanted their disapproval with a new government ordinance that was promulgated over the weekend. It effectively overhauls the current statutes on what constitutes sex crimes. Courts will now presume that a victim of rape did not consent.

It allows for capital punishment in cases of sexual assault that cause death or leaves the victim in a vegetative state. Repeat offenders also face the death sentence. Stalking and acid attacks are now separate criminal offenses.

But critics says the ordinance falls far short of the sweeping reforms recommended by the government's own panel, the Verma Commission, named for the former Supreme Court justice who chaired it.

Kavita Krishnan is the general secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association. She says the new ordinance - that took effect Monday - ignores issues central to eradicating violence against women. Such as: criminalizing marital rape, and subjecting members of the armed forces accused of sexual violence to ordinary criminal justice.

KAVITA KRISHNAN: You're not ending the impunity that is built into the system for certain powerful perpetrators. You are saying rape in some contexts is OK. But you're lenient in some context. You're protecting some powerful people. Who gave the government the right in their cabinet meeting, without showing even the ordinance to the country, to decide which provisions of Justice Verma can be thrown into the dustbin and which not? What gave them the right?

MCCARTHY: The government promised a parliamentary debate for these contentious issues.

Meanwhile, India's Supreme Court yesterday decided to examine whether juveniles can be tried as adults for grave offenses. The sixth accused in the Delhi rape case is a juvenile and faces a maximum penalty of three years in a reformatory; a fact over which political leader Sonia Gandhi has commiserated with the dead victim's family.

The petition before the Supreme Court said that providing blanket protection to every juvenile under 18 against every offense, unmindful of the nature of the crime, is irrational.

The court hears arguments in April.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

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