NEW DELHI — Eight Hindu men accused in the gang rape and killing of an 8-year-old Muslim girl in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state pleaded not guilty April 16 in their first court appearance.
The child’s battered body was found in a forest in January, a week after she went missing while grazing her family’s ponies. Police say the accused men planned the child’s kidnapping for over a month as part of a plan to scare her Muslim nomadic tribe away from the area.
Police said the child was sedated and held captive at a Hindu temple where she was repeatedly raped before being strangled and bludgeoned to death.
The court April 16 instructed the investigators to make sure that the accused men had copies of all the charges they faced before the next hearing on April 26.
The case has led to protests across the country and came to national prominence last week when thousands of members of a Hindu radical group, Hindu Ekta Manch, or the Hindu Unity Platform, marched in support of the accused men. Hundreds of lawyers from the local bar association also tried to prevent police from entering a court complex to place their investigation before a judge and said the accused men were all innocent.
Six men, including two police officers, are accused of being directly involved in the attacks on the girl. One of those policemen also allegedly joined in the search for her body. Two other policemen were arrested for attempts to destroy evidence.
At least two lawmakers from India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party also spoke out in support of the accused. The case highlights the increasing religious polarization in India since the BJP swept to power in 2014.
Meanwhile, thousands of people protested across India April 15 to seek an end to sexual violence against women, which has been on the rise in the country.
Carrying banners and placards, protesters marched in New Delhi, Mumbai and other cities, demanding that India’s government quickly prosecute rape suspects. Candlelight vigils were also held in some places.
The outrage was triggered by the rape and murder of the 8-year-old girl in Kashmir and the abduction and rape of a teenage girl in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state.
Many protesters expressed particular anger at India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party for initially siding with the accused in the Kashmir case. The young victim was a Muslim and the accused are Hindus.
A total of at least nine suspects, including a lawmaker from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and four police officials, have been arrested in the two cases.
Violent crime against women has been on the rise in India despite tough laws enacted in 2013. In 2012, the fatal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi triggered massive protests by hundreds of thousands to demand stricter rape laws in the country.
The outrage over the New Delhi attack spurred quick action on legislation doubling prison terms for rapists to 20 years and criminalizing voyeurism, stalking and the trafficking of women.
Indian lawmakers also voted to lower to 16 from 18 the age at which a person can be tried as an adult for heinous crimes.