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Asia

Opinion: A populist ruling

A New Delhi court has sentenced four men to death over the fatal gang rape of a woman last year. It's a short-sighted judgment that puts the country at risk of taking a wrong course, writes DW's Grahame Lucas.

Grahame Lucas is the Head of South East Asia Service/Asia Magazines of DW.

Grahame Lucas is the head of DW's South East Asia Service

The convicts are set to be executed by hanging. The men received the maximum sentence after being found guilty of raping and brutally beating a 23-year old medical student last December. The woman died from her injuries two weeks later in a Singapore hospital. The brutality of the crime sent shock waves around the world and triggered massive protests in India.

The attack has also sparked heated debates about the issue of violence against women in Indian society and led to an ever-increasing number of rape cases being reported. Since last years more than 1000 of these cases have been reported in the capital New Delhi alone. Given this atmosphere it seems that a death sentence was inevitable. The court ruling complied with the populist demands from politicians and an outraged public.

Violent attacks are part of women's everyday lives in India's strong patriarchal society. They often are unable to defend themselves and become victims of harassment, rape and acid attacks. Court proceedings take years to conclude and many rape cases are not taken up by the courts.

The police do not consider rape to be a serious crime. Young women, who report rape, are often rejected. The courts seldom take up rape cases, and the proceedings are so slow that they result in the loss of crucial evidence to convict the perpetrators of these crimes. No political party has announced measures for women's empowerment in their manifestos for next year's parliamentary elections.

It is a positive sign that this incident has triggered public discussions on issues concerning women's rights and safety in India. However, there is a danger that the country might take a wrong turn. Indian politicians initially responded to the outraged public sentiment by passing tougher laws. The legislation provides the possibility of imposing the death sentence on rapists, if the act results in the death of the victim. Fast-track courts were set up to conduct speedy trials in rape and sexual violence cases.

India, however, seems to forget something: The death penalty does not prevent crime and this has been clearly evidenced in criminal research. Moreover, the principle of revenge,"an eye for an eye," lies at the heart of sentencing someone to death. In the short term, this may satisfy the desire for revenge of the victim's family and other women who expressed their solidarity. But the long term impact of the capital punishment is counter-productive. Instead of solving the problems faced by Indian women, it deepens the divisions in the society.

What the country needs is an objective and rigorous debate about male attitudes and the role and rights of women. These discussions must be conducted without hatred and exaggerated emotions. That is a huge challenge.

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