A fatal gang rape in New Delhi last December sent shock waves across India. Now the first of five suspects on trial has been found guilty of rape and murder. Rights activists view the verdict as 'symbolic.'
The verdict announced Saturday (31.08.2013) was eagerly awaited by millions of people not only in India, but also around the world. A juvenile court in New Delhi found the first of the five men on trial over the fatal gang rape of a student guilty of murder and rape. The teenager, who was 17 at the time of the attack, was sentenced to three years in a correctional facility, including the time he has already spent in custody. It is the maximum penalty allowed for a juvenile offender under Indian law.
The defendant was one of six people accused of tricking a 23-year-old woman and her male companion into boarding an off-duty bus in the Indian capital on December 16, 2012. Police said the men raped and brutalized the physiotherapy student and savagely beat the man on the moving bus before dumping them naked on the roadside. The woman died from her injuries two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.
The brutality of the December attack not only made global headlines but also triggered outrage and weeks of sometimes violent protests across the vast nation, prompting Indian lawmakers to draft stricter laws on sexual violence, including a minimum 20-year prison sentence for rape and, in the event the victim dies, the death penalty.
'The cruelest of the attackers'
The four adult suspects, who have denied the charges leveled against them, are still on trial in a special fast-track court, with the verdicts expected in the coming weeks. The men face life in prison or death if convicted of rape and murder. The fifth adult suspect, the alleged ringleader and regular driver of the bus, died in jail in an apparent suicide.
The convicted teenager was six months short of becoming an adult when the attack took place and was therefore tried separately as a minor, despite calls from the victim's family to have him tried as an adult and thus face the death penalty.
According to media reports, the young man, a runaway who reportedly left his impoverished home in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh at the age of 11 to live in Delhi, was in charge of cleaning the bus used for the attack. Reports say he often slept on the street or inside the vehicle. But he was also described by the victim's surviving partner and the police as "the cruelest of the attackers."
Controversy over the term 'juvenile'
The fact that he was tried in a juvenile court had already sparked heated discussions on a possible reduction of the legal age of a juvenile. It even led to the verdict being deferred a total of four times due to a petition by politician Subramanian Swamy, an opposition leader, arguing that suspects aged over 16 who are accused of serious offences should be tried in adult courts.
But despite the delays, Pinky Anand, a senior lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court of India, said she was amazed at the pace of the trial. "For Indian standards, the conclusion of the Nirbhaya rape case is remarkable. The crime was committed in December 2012 and the trial of the juvenile accused was concluded in July 2013," Anand told DW.
The legal expert said that earlier, such trials would have easily taken two to three years.
"Although delays and prolonged trials are still a feature of the Indian judiciary, significant changes are being adopted to ensure that effective justice is imparted," Anand said. "Fast track courts are being established to try persons accused of sexual assault. Therefore though there is scope for further improvement, there has been significant progress."
UN: 'A symbolic moment'
India's National Crime Records Bureau says more than 24,200 rapes were reported across the country in 2011 - about one every 20 minutes. The verdict was pronounced just days after a 22-year-old photojournalist was brutally gang raped by five men while on assignment with her male colleague in the city of Mumbai.
In light of these attacks, Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, UN Women's representative for India, said the latest conviction as a "symbolic moment" to send a message that attacks on women are serious crimes. The UN official said she believes that higher conviction rates can act as a strong deterrent to violence.
This view is shared by Indian women's rights activist Ranjana Kumari, who said the results of the trial will have "strong implications for the way our legal system will approach violence against women." Kumari told DW she is convinced that "surety and severity of the punishment combined with a message of zero tolerance for sexual assault are the only ways to control men and boys."
Coming out of the shadows
For Reichmann the fatal December attack represents a "tipping point" that has brought global attention to the issue of violence against women and led to progressive reforms and changes. According to media reports, New Delhi police registered a sharp jump in the number of sex crimes reported in the months following the incident.
"Service providers and police have improved their responsiveness," Reichmann told DW, adding that this as a positive development in the sense that more women are "coming out of the shadows." But despite this trend, experts said India still has a long way to go when it comes to protecting women. Experts argue that while the Criminal Amendment Act has been welcomed across the country - because it calls for an end to impunity, and recognizes a broad range of sexual crimes against women - it's the implementation that matters.
"The law acknowledges that lesser crimes often escalate to graver ones, and deterrence is important. But we all know that laws by themselves are not the solution," Reichmann said.
'Society must change as a whole'
The UN official therefore believes that much more needs to be done to address the root causes, including ending a culture of gender inequality.
Violence against women in India takes different forms, ranging from acid attacks, female feticide, to dowry violence, rape, and domestic violence, she said.
If there is to be any change, Reichmann says, these attitudes and society must change as a whole. "Boys and girls should be valued equally by parents and by the family. Women need to have equal opportunities as men."
The UN representative therefore calls on more men to "reject a culture of domination, control and power over women and embrace equitable and respectful relationships with women."