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Women's Group Flay Indian Government to Call

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Women's Groups Flay Indian Government Call for Hanging Rapists

Mon Dec 2, 6:12 AM ET

The Indian government's recent call for hanging rapists has evoked strong criticism from women activists campaigning against sexual assault.

Several women's organizations -- such as the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), the Centre for Social Research (CSR) and Guild of Service -- Monday dismissed remarks made in Parliament by the south Asian nation's deputy Prime Minister and Home minister, Lal Krishna Advani, favoring the death penalty for rapists.

"The death penalty is not going to fight rape," said Kalindi Deshpande, treasurer of AIDWA, one of the largest women's groups in India. "On the contrary, it will be more difficult to convict a rapist, because judges will be more reluctant to send someone to death for rape" she said.

Due to a long and involved judicial process, the conviction rate of alleged rapists in India is as low as 2 to 3 percent. The groups stressed that the rate of conviction would further decrease if the death penalty was the punishment instead of the present sentence of a maximum of ten years in jail for rape.

"In any case, the delay in the judicial and investigative system often leads to witnesses turning hostile or victims failing to depose before courts because of social pressures," said CSR director Ranjana Kumari. "The death penalty is not going to make the system any better," she said.

Not surprisingly, rape has snowballed into a major issue in India, a country where, according to the World Health Organization (news - web sites) (WHO), a woman is raped every hour. Indian government figures, however, record that the number of rape cases in India increased from 15,468 in 1999 to 16,496 in 2002.

The issue of death penalty for rapists has also been hanging fire for some years now. The matter was first raised by the Indian government in 1998, prompting a delegation of women activists to call on Advani to express their opposition to the death penalty as a means to fight rape. But last month, the issue surfaced again after a medical student was raped in broad daylight in the center of the capital, New Delhi. There were outraged demands that the death sentence - now restricted to murder - be extended to rape.

In India, a judge can sentence a person to death for the "most heinous" cases of murder. Though over half the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty, it remains in force in most parts of South Asia, including Bangladesh, and Pakistan. In Pakistan, international condemnation of a gang rape in Punjab province in June this year led to a court sentencing six men to death in September.

The death penalty for rape is in force in many countries in Asia, though it has been abolished by the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. In the Philippines, where the death penalty was re-introduced in 1993 after a six-year gap, rapists can be executed. In most Islamic nations, rape is a crime that can lead to death by stoning.

In China, the law against rapists is among the most severe in Asia. Government forces are known to gun down rapists convicted by summary trials.

The activists against the death penalty in India feared that the country was moving towards the system prevalent in China. Last week, India's defense minister George Fernandes joined Advani in demanding death for rapists, saying that India should follow China's method of executing the assaulters.

"I not only support the death-to-rapist idea but I would like to insist that the Chinese model of strict punishment be adopted," he told reporters Friday. The minister said that India should adopt the speed at which the Chinese justice system moved.

Despite their differences with the government on the death penalty, the women's groups, however, agreed with Fernandes on the need for speedy justice to combat rape. "We need special courts with sensitized judges to deal with the issue of rape," said V Mohini Giri, the chairperson of the Guild of Services, a New Delhi-based non-profit organization. "The delay in the system helps the rapist but not the victim," she said.

The groups urged the government to make the system less cumbersome for a rape victim, who has to depose several times before different authorities - such as the police, lawyers and magistrates. This often leads to cases being dropped by family members seeking to protect the victim from having to undergo several rounds of interrogation.

Women's groups, including AIDWA and CSR, have been urging the government to adopt a system that made depositions easier. "A victim's account can be video-recorded and then used in the different stages of investigation," said Ranjana Kumari.

For several years now, women's groups have also been working on a draft bill on sexual assault of women. The bill is now in the Indian Parliament, but has not yet been discussed by its members. "These are issues that have been thrashed out by women's groups across the country and presented as a bill," said Deshpande. "If the government is serious about fighting rape, all that it has to do is pass the bill," she said.

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