India court moves trial location in gang rape, murder of 8-year-old
New Delhi (CNN) India’s Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the trial of the men accused of the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl must be moved out of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The high-profile case sparked widespread outrage in April after a group of lawyers and right-wing Hindu activists attempted to forcibly block investigators from filing charges against the men accused.
The father of the victim, a member of a Muslim nomadic community known as the Bakarwals, had filed a plea asking for the location of the trial to be moved due to concerns over the impartiality of the state’s judicial system. The Jammu and Kashmi government had been opposed to the transfer of the trial.
The victim’s family had previously said they had become afraid “to go anywhere” in Kathua, where the community is predominantly Hindu.
The case will now be tried in the neighboring state of Punjab in the city of Pathankot, according to Sunil Fernandes, the lawyer who represents the girl’s father. The trial is expected to resume in July.
“It’s a victory for us. That’s what we have prayed for and the prayer has been granted,” said Fernandes.
Indian demonstrators gather at the India Gate monument for a late night candlelight vigil in protest over the gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl, in New Delhi on April 13, 2018.
Shocked a nation
The small, lifeless body of the victim, whose identity is protected by Indian law, was recovered from a forest in the isolated Himalayan district of Kathua in late January after an extensive police search.
But it was the horrifying details that emerged following a police investigation made public in April that saw the case gain nationwide attention — resulting in public protests in dozens of major cities.
Police say the young girl was abducted while grazing horses in a meadow on January 12.
From there, it is alleged she was taken to a Hindu temple, where she was drugged and held captive for five days.
During that period, police say she was raped repeatedly by several different men, before being murdered and dumped in a nearby forest on January 17. Postmortem reports concluded that she had been strangled to death.
It is alleged that the eight men accused of the crime, all of whom are Hindu, plotted the girl’s abduction as a means of scaring the predominately-Muslim nomads into vacating the region.
Seven of the eight have pleaded not guilty to accusations of involvement in the abduction, rape and murder of the girl.
It is not clear whether the trial of the eighth, who is a juvenile, will also be carried out outside of Jammu and Kashmir.
The trial of the men has proved to be a lightning rod in a part of India simmering with religious tensions, inflaming long held grievances within both Hindu and Muslim communities.
While Muslims are a minority population in India, making up about 14 percent of the overall population, they are a majority group in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The state’s Hindu minority has spoken out in recent years, citing fears over the influx of several thousand Rohingya refugees into the area and what they say is an increasing Muslim population.
Kathua, a town in the southern part of the state where the incident took place is majority Hindu.
The nomadic community the girl belonged to have traditionally moved between the two regions, traveling to Jammu with their livestock during the winter months, before returning to the Kashmir region when the snow melts in the spring.
The case is among a string of high-profile attacks on women to have shocked India in recent months.
On Sunday, authorities arrested the main suspect in the alleged gang rape of a 16-year-old girl who was later burned to death in rural Jharkhand.
In late April, thousands of people took to the streets across India to protest against the persistent threat of sexual violence, in some of the largest mass demonstrations held in the country since the rape and murder of a female college student in Delhi in 2012.
In response to public anger regarding the Jammu and Kashmir case, India’s Cabinet passed an executive order to make the rape of a girl younger than 12 punishable by death. The change in the law will become permanent once it gains approval by India’s Parliament, which is currently in recess.
Around 100 sexual assaults are reported to police in India every day, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. There were nearly 39,000 alleged attacks in 2016, an increase of 12% on the previous year.