An Indian court has sentenced three men to life imprisonment on Monday for the kidnap, rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Jammu and Kashmir state last year, in a high-profile case that sparked widespread protests across the country. Three other men have each received five years in prison for destruction of evidence.
Special prosecutor Santokh Singh said in a statement to reporters outside the court in Pathankot, Punjab state, that they would be appealing the sentences passed against the accused, along with the acquittal of another man.
“The court has given the benefit of doubt to that man. And the prosecution side is definitely going to file an appeal against the acquittal… We are also filing an appeal in the other cases too for the announcement of the sentence,” said Singh.
Another accused, who has been charged as a juvenile is undergoing a separate trial.
The victim, who belonged to a Muslim nomadic group known as the Bakarwals and whose identity is protected by Indian law, was abducted while she was alone in a field grazing horses in the town of Kathua in Jammu.
The convicted men, all of whom are Hindu, locked the victim inside a Hindu temple for five days where she was drugged and repeatedly raped, before being strangled and bludgeoned to death with a rock. Her body was later discovered in a nearby forest.
The initial arrests of the men, who prosecutors said plotted the girl’s abduction as a means of scaring the predominately-Muslim nomads into vacating the region, proved to be a lightning rod in a part of India simmering with religious tensions.
Immediately after the men were officially charged, a right wing nationalist group along with locals affiliated to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launched protests alleging bias by the investigators and demanded a separate inquiry into the whole case.
Two BJP ministers from the, now collapsed, Jammu and Kashmir government who had participated in the protests in support of the convicted men were forced to resign, amid accusations of political interference and religious discrimination.
Concerns over the impartiality of the state’s judicial system led to a Supreme Court ruling in May of last year ordering the trial of the accused to be moved to the neighboring state of Punjab. The Jammu and Kashmir government had been opposed to the transfer of the trial.
The Kathua incident was one of a string of brutal rapes that prompted thousands of people to take to the streets across India in April 2018, 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.
The public reaction helped spur the Indian government to introduce a new law allowing for the introduction of the death penalty to those convicted of raping a child under 12.
According to India’s National Law University report, nine people have been been sentenced to death under the new sexual violence law.
India has been grappling with the issue of sexual violence for decades. Yet despite the introduction of stricter laws in recent years, 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% over the previous year.
For victims, justice in India’s court system is far from certain. Courts and police both face a massive backlog of cases.
According to court records, the number of sexual assault-related cases awaiting a trial date in 2016 totaled 15,450, with the courts resolving just 1,395, or less than 10% that year.