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Key witness cross-examined in gang-rape trial

Defense lawyers at a special fast-track court in New Delhi are cross-examining the male companion of a student who was gang-raped on a bus on December 16. She died two weeks later from massive internal injuries.

The 28-year-old, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is in a wheelchair today. He too was assaulted and is still heavily traumatized. His father wheeled him into court on Wednesday.

He has already identified the suspects and the bus in which he and his companion were attacked after going to the cinema.

Five adult, handcuffed suspects entered the court with their faces covered by black masks. They have all pleaded not guilty to charges which include murder, gang rape, abduction, destroying evidence and criminal conspiracy. They face the death penalty if convicted of murder.

Members of All India Progressive Women's Association (AIPWA) take part in a protest against new laws on sexual crimes EPA/HARISH TYAGI

Women have protested against the new laws on sexual crimes

Role of women in Indian society

The brutal incident last December triggered an outcry and a nationwide debate about the condition of women in India today.

"The case has triggered panic and a veritable state of fear among the people," Abhay Mohan who serves as a Supreme Court justice in New Delhi told DW. "They poured out onto the streets without being called upon to do so."

Half of the men questioned as part of a recent study conducted by the International Center for Research on Women, an NGO based in New Delhi that was set up only a few weeks before the incident, admitted they had harassed or abused a woman.
Only 5 percent of the women surveyed said they felt safe in the Indian capital. The authors said the results also reflected the situation in other cities.

Legal changes

The mass protests that broke out across India put pressure on the government to reflect upon the role of women in society. Two panels were set up - one to look into the failures of the police and judiciary after the rape incident and the other to examine how women and girls could be better protected from sexual abuse.

In its 630-page report, the panel, headed by former chief justice of India J. S. Verma, recommended that the maximum seven-year sentence for rape be increased to 20 years and that all gang rapes be punishable by life imprisonment. It fell short of recommending the death penalty, it said, because it had received "overwhelming suggestions" against it, including from women's groups.

The area around the Indian Saket District Court EPA/ANINDITO MUKHERJEE

The Indian Saket District Court is in the spotlight

It also suggested stronger punishment for the trafficking of women and children and crimes such as groping, stalking, unsolicited sexual contact and voyeurism.
A recommendation was also made for more judges - there are an estimated 90,000 cases for rape pending in India today.

Overall, the panel received some 80,000 suggestions from India and abroad on tackling sex crimes.

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee gave his assent to some of the panel's recommendations last Sunday. He also approved the death penalty in extreme cases.

Under the changes, which came into immediate effect, the minimum sentence for gang-rape, rape of a minor, rape by policemen or a person in authority will be doubled from 10 to 20 years and can be extended to life without parole. The cabinet has also created a new set of offences such as voyeurism and stalking that will be included in the law.

Women's rights groups have criticized the ordinance, saying it lacks teeth to fight sexual crimes against women. They said the government should not have passed the law without holding a debate. Moreover, they criticized the fact that Justice Verma's suggestion that marital rape be made an offence was ignored.

Juvenile justice

A sixth suspect, aged 17, is being tried in a juvenile court. He faces a maximum of three years at a correction home. However, because he is said to have been the most brutal of the accused, there have been calls to reduce the age of a juvenile from 18.

The Verma panel was against this even in cases of heinous crimes. The government has yet to make a decision.

According to the 2011 census, some 40 percent of Indians are younger than 18. Crime statistics say they are responsible for only 2 percent of all crimes in the country.

Indian protester lights candles during an evening rally EPA/HARISH TYAGI +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

The death of the gang-rape victim has resonated with millions of Indians

Amod Kanth, the founder of the non-profit juvenile aid center Prayas, thinks the current debate about tightening juvenile law is out of place. He calculates that some 33,000 crimes per year are committed by juveniles and 10 percent of these can be classified as serious.

"Has our society reached such a point that we're no longer in a position to do something for these criminals and put them back on the right track?" he asks.

He says that many of the youths who are responsible for serious crimes have difficult family and social backgrounds. "They are either illiterate or have stopped going to school. Their family life has crumbled and they have turned to crime."
It's not about changing the juvenile justice system, he says, but about changing society.

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