UN chief joins global outrage over rape and murder of 8-year-old girl

Calls on Indian authorities to take action against the accused


NEW DELHI: The global outrage over the gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in India refuses to die down. Describing the incident in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua as “horrific”, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres asked the Indian authorities to ensure that the guilty are brought to justice.

“I think we’ve seen the media reports of this horrific case, of the abuse and the murder of a young girl. We very much hope that the authorities will bring the perpetrators to justice so they can be held accountable for the murder of this young girl,” Guterres’ spokesperson Stephane Dujjaric said at a press briefing on Friday.

The eight-year-old Muslim girl, Asifa, was found dead in a Hindu-dominated area of Jammu and Kashmir state in January. Anger erupted this week when details of her ordeal were released in a police charge sheet.

Underlining the political tensions over the case, some members of the ruling BJP party joined a rally organized by a hardline Hindu group earlier this week to show support for eight Hindu men accused of the crime, including a former bureaucrat and four police officers.

On Friday, two of those BJP members resigned as anger mounted over the rally.

Meanwhile, a lawmaker from India’s ruling party was arrested on Friday in connection with the rape of a teenager, police said, after days of protests by activists accusing authorities of failing to investigate the case and other attacks.

The BJP lawmaker, Kuldeep Singh Sengar from the legislature of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, was arrested in connection with the rape case, senior state police officer Rahul Srivastav said.

“He will be presented before the court and charges will be pressed on Saturday,” the officer added, without saying what charges he would face. Sengar’s lawyer, R.K. Singh, earlier said his client was innocent and the case was a conspiracy to harm his political career.

Opposition groups have joined protests and vigils in cities across India, calling for tougher action.

“We are urging every rights group to seek public support and take to the streets across India, the guilty must be punished as soon as possible,” said Ramya Varshney, a member of Awaaz, a voluntary organization providing legal advice to rape victims.

The rallies, which echoed mass protests against sexual violence in 2012, have piled pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi who, hours earlier on Friday, had promised to take action.

“Yet again we’ve failed as a society,” Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar said in a Twitter message.

“Can’t think straight as more chilling details on little Asifa’s case emerge ... her innocent face refuses to leave me. Justice must be served, hard and fast!”

Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi held a candlelit vigil at midnight on Thursday at India Gate in New Delhi, the same site where thousands of people demonstrated in 2012 against a brutal gang rape in the capital.

“Like millions of Indians, my heart hurts tonight,” Gandhi wrote on Twitter after addressing an estimated crowd of 5,000 people at the event. “India simply cannot continue to treat its women the way it does.”

Meenakshi Lekhi, a senior BJP leader, accused Gandhi’s Congress party and other opposition groups of “playing politics”.

Ministers have said justice will be done no matter who committed the crime, while defending the government’s record on fighting violence against women.

Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women and child development, said her ministry planned to propose the death penalty for the rape of children younger than 12. The maximum punishment now is life imprisonment.

India registered about 40,000 rape cases in 2016, up from 25,000 in 2012, government data show. Rights activists say thousands more go unreported. — Agencies