Will Indian gang-rape death lead to reforms?

In response to the death of a young woman after a violent sexual attack in India, protestors are taking to the streets. They have also submitted a petition asking for politicians facing charges of similar crimes to be removed from office.

AP Photo/ Dar Yasin
Indian women offer prayers for a gang rape victim at Mahatma Gandhi memorial in New Delhi, India, Wednesday. India's top court says it will decide whether to suspend lawmakers facing sexual assault charges.

Indian lawmakers facing sexual assault charges could be suspended from office if the country's top court rules in favor of a petition submitted after a gang-rape and murder that shocked the country.

Six state lawmakers are facing rape prosecutions and two national parliamentarians are facing charges of crimes against women that fall short of rape, said Jagdeep S. Chhokar, an official with the Association for Democratic Reforms, which tracks political candidate's criminal records.

The petition will be heard Thursday, the same day police plan to formally charge six suspects in the attack on a 23-year-old university student in New Delhi two weeks ago.

The rape triggered outrage and sparked demands for stronger laws, tougher police action against sexual assault suspects and a sustained campaign to change society's views on women.

As part of that campaign, Chief Justice Altamas Kabir agreed to hear a petition from retired government administrator Promilla Shanker asking the Supreme Court to suspend all national and state lawmakers who are facing prosecution for crimes against women.

She also asked the court to force the national government to fast-track thousands of rape cases languishing in India's notoriously sluggish court system.

In the past five years, political parties across India nominated 260 candidates awaiting trial on charges of crimes against women, Chhokar said. Parties ran six candidates for the national parliamentary elections facing such charges, he said.

"We need to decriminalize politics and surely a serious effort has to be made to stop people who have serious charges of sexual assault against them from contesting elections," said Zoya Hasan, a political analyst.

On Wednesday morning, several thousand women held a silent march to Gandhi's memorial in the capital in memory of the victim, holding placards demanding "Respect" and "Justice." Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit joined the women for a prayer session for the victim. The Gandhi memorial is a common protest site.

On Tuesday, the government set up a task force to monitor women's safety in New Delhi and to review whether police were properly protecting women. Two task forces already are examining the handling of the rape case and possible changes in rape laws.

The rape of the unidentified woman on a bus in the capital has horrified many and brought unprecedented attention to the daily suffering of women here, who face everything from catcalls and groping to rapes.

Six men arrested in the case were to be formally charged Thursday with kidnapping, rape and murder, said Rajan Bhagat, the New Delhi police spokesman. Police have said they would push for the death penalty. Another suspect underwent medical testing to determine his age since juveniles cannot be charged with murder in India.

The Bar Association of lawyers last week decided against defending the six suspects because of the nature of the crime, although the court is expected to appoint attorneys to defend them.

Media reports say 30 witnesses have been gathered, and the charges have been detailed in a document running more than 1,000 pages. Police also have detained the owner of the bus used in the crime on accusation he used false documents to obtain permits to run the private bus service.

The family of the victim — who died Saturday at a hospital in Singapore — is struggling to come to grips with the tragedy.

"She was a very, very, very cheerful little girl and she was peace loving and she was never embroiled in any controversies like this. I don't know why this happened to her," her uncle, Suresh Singh, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The family of the victim, whose name was not revealed, called for stronger rape laws to prevent such attacks from happening again and demanded swift — and harsh — justice for woman's assailants, Singh said.

"If the government can't punish them, give the rapists to the people. The people will settle the scores with them," he said.

Associated Press writer Biswajeet Banerjee contributed to this report from Lucknow.

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