The first of the five suspects on trial over a fatal gang rape in New Delhi has been found guilty by a juvenile court. Analysts expect the judgement to affect how authorities deal with future rape cases.
It is regarded by many as one of the most brutal crimes in recent history. A 23-year-old woman and her male companion were tricked by six men into boarding an off-duty bus in the Indian capital New Delhi on December 16, 2012. The men then raped and tortured the university student and beat her male companion before dumping them on the roadside, according to police reports. A couple of weeks later, the woman died from her injuries in a Singapore hospital.
Although sex crimes are not uncommon in India - with around one reported every 20 minutes in 2011, according to India's National Crime Records Bureau. The brutality of the December attack set off mass protests about the treatment of women across the country.
The incident did not only shock Indian society, but also made headlines around the world. In India, it sparked political debate and prompted lawmakers to draft stricter laws on sexual violence, including a minimum 20-year prison sentence for gang rape and, in the event the victim dies, the death penalty.
More than eight months later, a New Delhi court found the first of the five defendants on trial 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.
Only five men have faced proceedings because the alleged ringleader and regular driver of the bus died in jail in an apparent suicide. The trial of the four adult defendants is expected to wrap up in the next couple of weeks, with the men facing possible death sentences if convicted of rape and murder.
'A big impact' on society
According to women's rights activist Ranjana Kumari, the outcome of the case will reverberate through the whole of India: "The result of this trial, as well as of the trials of the other suspects, has strong implications for the way our legal system will approach violence against women," Kumari told DW, adding that the trial would set a precedent on how India's judiciary would respond to future cases of rape.
The rights activist believes that the verdicts in the trials of the adult suspects, could also have an impact on men's behavior towards women. "If the suspects are found guilty and given long sentences or the death penalty this could lead to the law been looked at as deterrent." Kumari is of the opinion 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."
But it seems that the case has had a more immediate impact. According to media reports, New Delhi police registered a sharp jump in the number of sex crimes reported in the months following the incident. "There was a 148-percent leap in rape reports lodged with police to 359 incidents between January 1 and March 24 this year from the same period in 2012 and a 590-percent rise in molestation reports to 794," police are quoted as saying. Kumari says more women have been reporting such cases due to an increased awareness of women's rights under the law.
The fact that one of the suspects was tried in a juvenile court, despite calls from the victim's family to have him tried as an adult and thus face the death penalty, has sparked heated discussions on a possible reduction of the legal age of a juvenile from 18 to 16 years. It even led to the verdict being delayed 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.
Senior Indian Supreme Court lawyer K. T. S. Tulsi explains that the debate has been fueled by the fact that there has been a 30-percent increase in the number of murders alleged to have been committed by juveniles and a 34-percent rise in the number of rapes attributed to the same age group in the past 10 years, according to Tulsi. "In view of this dangerous trend there has been widespread clamor for lowering the age of juveniles under the Juvenile Justice Act," he told DW.
'Perhaps we need another Gandhi'
Furthermore, the effects of toughening the laws on sexual violence remain unclear. Incidents such as the recent gang rape of four schoolgirls abducted from their convent boarding house in the country's east keep making global headlines. Kaimini Jaiswal, lawyer at India's Supreme Court, points out that tougher laws are not the answer: "We continue to hear of such crimes all the time. The law has always been there, it is the implementation that is lax," Jaiswal told DW.
The law expert believes that in order to bring about real change in India, it is imperative to empower all women, most of whom are still financially and emotionally dependent on their male relatives.
"What we see in the bigger cities and metros is not the true picture. Women can barely raise their head and voice in most households. This needs do be dealt with with literacy because most women don't even know their rights."
Although Indian society is changing, it remains largely patriarchal. K. T. S. Tulsi therefore argues that the entire Indian male mindset has to change in order to improve the status of women. Without this, he states, no law will have any deterrent effect. "Perhaps we need another Gandhi because the problem is more social than legal."