India court jails three for life for rape, murder of Kashmir girl

Gang rape and murder of eight-year-old Muslim girl in 2018 provoked horror and interreligious tensions.

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    Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir - A court has sentenced three men to life imprisonment for the rape and murder of a young girl from a Muslim nomadic tribe in 2018 that provoked horror and stoked interreligious tensions.

    A special court in Pathankot in India's northern state of Punjab on Monday sentenced another three men, all police personnel, to five years in prison for tampering with evidence.

    The six Hindu men were earlier found guilty of the rape and murder of the eight-year-old girl in Kathua village of Indian-administered Kashmir last year.

    The judge acquitted one of the accused due to lack of evidence.

    'Expected capital punishment'

    The father of the victim, Muhammad Akhtar, told Al Jazeera that he had expected capital punishment for the criminals.

    "They should have been dealt [with] the same way as they murdered my daughter. How could they acquit one accused in the crime? That’s injustice," he said.

    "We did not go to court," he added. "We were waiting for the decision as well as carrying on our hard life in the mountains. I have not slept all this year, thinking about what was done to my daughter. Had she been alive today she would have turned nine."

    The barbarity of the case came to the fore in a 16-page charge sheet presented by the crime branch - a special wing of the Jammu and Kashmir police - in April last year.

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    The investigation had revealed that the rape and murder were systematic, preplanned and rooted in religious hatred harboured by Sanji Ram, a Hindu, against the Muslim nomadic community of Bakarwals - a tribal community.

    As the incident had created communal tension in the restive region last year, authorities made elaborate security arrangements at the court complex in Pathankot and Kathua in the run-up to the verdict.

    Charges of rape and murder were framed by the district and sessions judge against seven of the eight accused, all Hindus.

    The trial against one of the accused - a juvenile - is yet to begin as his petition on determining his age is to be heard by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. Another accused was acquitted by the court on Monday.

    The accused face a minimum sentence of life imprisonment and a maximum of the death penalty. However, a hearing on the "quantum of punishment" - what levels of punishment a court considers should be allowed - is in progress and a decision is likely to be announced later on Monday.

    'Heavily sedated'

    The nomad girl, who enjoyed taking horses to graze in the forest near her home, was abducted by eight people with an aim to drive the minority Muslim community out of the village, according to the police investigation.

    In captivity inside a temple, the girl was heavily sedated and gang raped by at least three men over the course of four days, the police probe stated. The report described the victim as an "innocent budding flower, a child of only eight years of age, who being a small kid became a soft target".

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    The crime, however, was rooted in a conspiracy and the girl's rape and killing were a means to an end - to create fear among the Muslim nomadic Bakarwal community and force them to leave, according to the police report. 

    The girl was raised by her maternal uncle, Mohammad Yusuf, who adopted her when she was a toddler and the family lived in Rasana, a Hindu-majority village in the southernmost Jammu region.

    Three police officers were also involved in destroying the evidence, the report said.

    The incident, which initially appeared to draw a reluctant outrage, snowballed into a major crisis for India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after two of its ministers rallied in support of the accused.

    However, after the details and motives of the rape and killing became public, street protests rocked the Muslim-majority region in Kashmir. Thousands of people also rallied in support of the victim in several parts of India.

    Human rights groups have repeatedly claimed that religious minority groups, particularly Muslims, face increasing threats by Hindu groups in India.

    Following the incident, the Indian parliament in August last year passed stringent legislation prescribing the death penalty to those convicted of raping girls below the age of 12 years and making the law against such sexual offences harsher.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News