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Indian students and activists during a protest following the gang-rape of a student in New Delhi. India’s cabinet has approved harsher punishments for rapists, including the death penalty.
Indian students and activists during a protest following the gang-rape of a student in New Delhi. India’s cabinet has approved harsher punishments for rapists, including the death penalty.

'India rape laws shouldn't include death penalty'

Some women's rights groups fear that including the death penalty will encourage rapists to kill their victims. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports from New Delhi

NEW DELHI // India's president yesterday signed off on tough new laws to deal with sexual violence against women. But some women's rights groups say the government went too far when it included the death penalty for extreme cases, such as when the victim is killed.

Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, said the version signed by the Indian president, Pranab Mukherjee, ignored recommendations against the death penalty made to cabinet by a committee set up to examine the issue.

The death penalty will encourage rapists to be more inclined to kill a victim "because she won't be able to testify", Ms Krishnan said yesterday.

"The severity of a sentence does not mean justice for women," she added. "The death penalty has never been central to what women's groups have been asking for. This is not going to help with justice in all cases."

She said the three-member committee did not recommend the death penalty, even in cases where a rape leads to death of the victim or leaves her in a "persistent vegetative state." Instead, she said, the report stated that "there is a strong submission that the seeking of the death penalty would be a regressive step in the field of sentencing and reformation".

The December 16 gang rape of a 23-year-old New Delhi student, who later died of her injuries, prompted nationwide outrage and demands to improve India's legal response to sexual violence against women.

In response, the government set up a three-member committee to examine the issue. It made recommendations to the Indian cabinet, which then passed its recommendations to Mr Mukherjee.

Stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks will now be considered punishable under criminal law. The minimum sentence for gang rape, rape of a minor, rape by policemen or a person in authority will be doubled to 20 years from 10, and can be extended to life without parole. Under the current law, a rapist faces a term of seven to 10 years. But committee recommendations to reclassify marital rape and the prosecution of armed forces personnel who commit sexual assaults, were not accepted.

Based on submissions by groups such as the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, the report by the committee recommended that security forces, such as those who patrol Kashmir and India's north eastern states, be brought under the authority of criminal law rather than army law to ensure that allegations of rape by soldiers are investigated and prosecuted.

"What kind of democracy is this where voices of 45 million people living in north-east India are denied justice on issues of rape and women's safety?" asked Binalakshmi Nepram, an activist and founder of the gun survivors network. "We had worked very hard and submitted our recommendations to [the] committee to ensure there is a special need to look at this [issue].

Ms Krishnan warned that the death penalty will make it even harder for rape victims to come forward. She saud that, in India, most rapes are committed by friends, relatives or acquaintances. Often, the family of the rapist and the community will pressure the victim to keep quiet or retract her statement.

"The pressure will be redoubled by the family to not file a complaint or pursue a court case, if it comes down to the fact that a relative who raped will be killed," Ms Krishnan said.

The new laws will go into effect if parliament ratifies them within within six weeks of the start of the next session, which begins February 21.

Last week, scores of protesters gathered near India's parliament demanding the death penalty for the six men accused in the student's death in December. The protesters carried placards saying, ``Give us Justice, Hang the Rapists,'' and shouted slogans before conducting a mock hanging of the men who are facing trial in a special court in New Delhi.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae with additional reports from Associated Press

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