INDIA’S CABINET HAS approved harsher punishments for rapists, including the death penalty, after a brutal gang-rape in New Delhi sparked national outrage.
A government-appointed panel recommended the changes to ministers after the death of a 23-year-old woman who was savagely raped and attacked in a bus on 16 December 2012 and died nearly two weeks later.
The announcement comes as five men plead not guilty to her rape and murder. According to the Associated Press, the accused were formally indicted in a special court on 13 charges today.
The court will begin hearing the evidence of witnesses on Tuesday.
The case has ignited nationwide demonstrations by protesters demanding better safety for women.
The changes, which must be approved by President Pranab Mukherjee to become law, include doubling the minimum sentence for gang-rape and imposing the death penalty when the victim is killed or left in a vegetative state.
“We have taken swift action and hope these steps will make women feel safer in the country,” Law Minister Ashwani Kumar told reporters late on Friday.
“This is a progressive piece of legislation and is consistent with the felt sensitivities of the nation in the aftermath of the outrageous gang-rape,” he added.
On Saturday, the gang-rape victim’s brother praised the cabinet’s decision to make sentences tougher for attackers, calling it a “positive initiative”, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.
The changes to the rape laws were expected to be approved by Mukherjee as early as this weekend but must be ratified by parliament or they will lapse.
Under the changes, the minimum sentence for gang-rape, rape of a minor, rape by policemen or a person in authority will be doubled to 20 years from 10 and can be extended to life without parole.
Under the current law, a rapist faces a term of seven to 10 years.
The cabinet has also created a new set of offences such as voyeurism and stalking that will be included in the new law.
Five men are being tried in a special fast-track court in New Delhi on charges of murder, kidnapping and rape in connection with the death of the student, who died from her injuries in a Singapore hospital where she had been sent for further treatment.
A sixth suspect faces trial in a juvenile court.
The physiotherapy student was assaulted on a bus she had boarded with a male companion as they returned home from watching a film in an upmarket shopping mall.
India says it only imposes the death penalty in the “rarest of rare cases”. Three months ago, it hanged the lone surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks – the country’s first execution in eight years.
Verdicts for the five men would be handed down “very soon”, a defence lawyer said earlier in the week, as an application to relocate the trial outside of the capital failed.
A separate court has ruled that a sixth suspect in the case should be tried as a juvenile after it accepted his claim based on his school certificate that he was aged 17.
The decision, which means he faces a maximum of three years if convicted instead of the death penalty, has appalled the victim’s family who said they would call for an exception to be made in the case.
Indian media reports, citing unnamed police officials, say the 17-year-old was among the most brutal of the assailants, who are accused of attacking the woman with an iron bar, causing horrifying internal injuries.
-Additional reporting by Sinéad O’Carroll and AP