Five senior police officers have been suspended over their handling of an investigation into the alleged gang rape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman that has sparked outrage across India and triggered days of protests.
The seriously injured teenager from the Dalit caste, formerly the “untouchables”, was found in mid-September outside her village in northern Uttar Pradesh state and died this week in a New Delhi hospital.
The police have arrested four higher-caste men on charges of gang rape and murder. On Saturday, the local Uttar Pradesh government announced India’s federal police, Central Bureau of Investigation, will investigate the crimes.
But the police have faced criticism for attempting to destroy evidence by cremating the woman’s body in the middle of the night – reportedly using petrol – against the wishes of her family and religious custom.
The teenager’s body was cremated in an open field on Wednesday (21:30 GMT on Tuesday) in Hathras, about 200km (125 miles) from the Indian capital, in the presence of police and other officials.
“We told the administration we want to cremate her in the morning as per Hindu rituals, but they did not listen to us. They locked us inside our home and burned her body,” the girl’s brother told Al Jazeera.
“We kept shouting from inside the house but they did not listen to us and cremated her using petrol. Petrol is never used for the last rites but why would they care?”
The family said they wanted to see the girl’s face once more before her cremation, but the authorities refused.
“The last time we saw her face was just after the post-mortem [autopsy] was done. They did not even accord us the basic dignity of allowing us to watch her face one last time,” her brother said.
A senior policeman on Thursday sparked outrage after claiming that a forensic report and an autopsy had shown that the woman had not been raped.
This contradicts statements from the victim and her mother and reported hospital findings, while experts said the forensic test was carried out too long after the attack.
Hundreds of police have also barricaded the village, preventing the woman’s family from leaving and journalists and opposition politicians from talking to them.
The family’s mobile phones have also reportedly been seized.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath late on Friday announced the suspension of the Hathras district police chief and four others.
The Hindu monk and close ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi also announced that the victim’s family, the accused and the suspended policemen would all undergo lie detector and drug tests.
On Friday evening in the latest protest, approximately 500 people including the capital’s chief minister and a prominent Dalit politician gathered in central New Delhi demanding justice.
“We (women) are not actually free, even though India is independent,” Sanskriti, one of the women at the Delhi protest site told the AFP news agency.
“This is something I want to raise my voice against. And I just wish all the people get united and they understand that it is high time to do something about it,” she added.
The young woman’s death comes months after four men were hanged for the 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a bus in New Delhi, in a case that came to symbolise India’s sexual violence epidemic.
On average, 87 rapes were reported in India every day last year, according to data by the National Crime Records Bureau, but large numbers are thought to go unreported.