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Bid to protect teenage Indian gang rape suspect from backlash

Child-rights' advocates say it would be wrong for police to appeal against a court ruling to try a sixth suspect in the Delhi gang rape case case as a juvenile. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports from New Delhi

Protests against rape and the treatment of Indian women are continuing in New Delhi.
Protests against rape and the treatment of Indian women are continuing in New Delhi.

NEW DELHI // Child-rights' advocates say it would be wrong for police to appeal against a court ruling to try a sixth suspect in the Delhi gang rape case case as a juvenile.

"No matter how ruthless a crime it is, every juvenile has the right to reformation," said Nishit Kumar, the head of communications with Childline India Foundation in Mumbai.

The juvenile justice board ruled on Monday that the suspect was 17 years old, based on his school records, when the deadly assault took place on December 16. Under the law a minor is anyone under the age of 18.

Initially, police sought a court order to obtain a bone-density test to more accurately determine the suspect's age, but the board dismissed the request and accepted testimony of two of the teenager's former school principals.

The youth has been charged with rape but not with murder, which is a charge rarely levelled against minors even when a victim dies.

While the other suspects face the possibility of being hanged if found guilty of rape and murder charges, the maximum sentence for the juvenile is three years in a young offenders' institute.

Delhi police argue the juvenile was the most brutal of the six accused rapists.

According to a confidential charge sheet obtained by various Indian media outlets, the youth lured the victim and her male companion on to the bus by saying it was heading in the direction of her home and raped her twice, including once when she was unconscious.

The report states that he was the one who brutalised the 23-year-old with an iron rod, and then pulled her intestines out through the wound. He also reportedly stripped the woman and her male friend of their clothing, bank cards and mobile phones before throwing them out of the bus.

The police said they are considering appealing against the decision by the board.

Mr Kumar said that this would be a mistake.

"Where in the world has it shown retribution is the answer?" he said. His non-profit organisation started India's first toll-free phone lines for children in distress in 2011, and works to protect the rights of children who live on the streets or are victims of abuse.

According to an interview the youth's mother gave, he left home at the age of 11 to support his family. Neither of his parents were able to work. He first worked at a restaurant and sent money home for the first few years, after which the family lost touch, the mother said. They feared he was dead or had been trafficked. He had found work with the bus service and befriended the driver, Ram Singh, another of the accused in the case.

India's juvenile criminal system applies to children from the ages of 17 to 18. There are roughly 450 million Indians below the age of 18. Of these, an estimated 170 million are "marginalised" on account of exploitation, abuse, poverty, disability or calamity, Mr Kumar said.

"These are children who are trafficked, abused, deceived, or trapped in homes that are far below the poverty line," ssaid the child-rights group's leader. The poverty line in India is less than 50 US cents (Dh1.84) a day.

"The Indian children are not being provided for," Mr Kumar said. "We are nowhere close to providing juvenile justice."

The panel's decision on the youth was expected to infuriate many people, including protesters, police and political leaders, who have called for the age at which people can be tried as adults to be lowered from 18 to 16.

But it is important to keep the focus on the child, said Vijaylakshmi Arora, a policy and advocacy director with a non-profit group, Child Rights and You, in New Delhi.

"There is outcry because of the brutality of the crime committed, but the point we have to keep in mind is we cannot react on the basis of one incident," said Ms Arora.

"We cannot go about amending laws. We condemn what the child did, but what are the circumstances the child has been living in in the past five years? He has been on the street since 11. What happened to the child and the system in terms of response when the child needed protection?" she said.

Yesterday, a petition to move the trial for the other five accused out of the capital was turned down by the supreme court because it was lodged by a lawyer who is no longer working on the case.

VK Anand said he would not renew the application, made by his client Mukesh Singh's original lawyer, but that he would challenge a media gag imposed on court proceedings by the judge.

Police said the victim, a physiotherapy student, and her male friend boarded the bus after watching an evening film. But the bus turned out to be out of service, and was being driven by a group of friends who, police have claimed, attacked the couple and then took turns raping the woman. The woman died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.


* With additional reporting from Agence France-Press and Reuters

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