PATHANKOT: A court in north India jailed three men for life on Monday over the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl that stirred nationwide outrage and religious rivalries.
The case illustrated India’s appalling record on violence against women and children, and drew criticism of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after some members criticised police for pressing charges.
“This is a victory of truth,” said prosecution lawyer M Farooqi after the convictions.
“The girl and her family have got justice today.”
The girl, from a nomadic Muslim community that roams the forests of Kashmir, was drugged, held captive in a temple and sexually assaulted for a week before being strangled and battered to death with a stone in January 2018.
The prosecution had sought the death penalty for the three men – including a Hindu priest – who received life sentences.
Three other men, all police officers, received five-year terms for destroying evidence.
The abduction, rape and killing of the child was part of a plan to remove the minority community from the area, the 15-page charge sheet said.
In a 432-page judgment, the court also levied fines of 150,000 rupees (US$2,150) on the three men given life terms – priest Sanji Ram, Deepak Khajuria and Parvesh Kumar.
The policemen – Surinder Kumar, Tilak Raj and Anand Dutta – were also fined 50,000 rupees (US$718) each.
Defence lawyer Vikram Mahajan said all six would appeal.
The case shocked India and prompted parliament to adopt the death penalty for rapists of girls younger than 12.
The trial began in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir state more than a year ago, but India’s Supreme Court shifted it to Pathankot in neighbouring Punjab state after the girl’s family and lawyer said they faced death threats.
Lawyers and Hindu politicians, including some from the ruling BJP, had also held protests against the charges.
Women and children in India have long been subjected to violence.
Reported rapes climbed 60% to 40,000 from 2012 to 2016, government figures show, which officials attribute to more women coming forward due to greater public awareness.
However, many more cases still go unreported, especially in rural areas, because of the fear of social consequences and lack of trust in police.
Of eight people accused in the girl’s case, one man identified only as Vishal was to be freed after being found not guilty, defence lawyers said.
The last, a juvenile, awaits trial.