An Indian court on Monday convicted six men over the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Jammu and Kashmir state, a case that fanned communal tensions in the disputed region.
Asifa Bano belonged to a nomadic Muslim community – the Gujjars – that travelled around the forests near to the Hindu-majority city of Kathua.
She was drugged, held captive in a temple and sexually assaulted for a week before being strangled and battered to death with a stone in January 2018.
It is believed the attack took place after groups of Hindu farmers had become angry with wayfaring Muslims who they claimed were settling on their land and using resources.
The 15-page charge sheet said that the murder of Asifa was part of a plan to remove the minority nomadic community from the Kathua area.
The case sparked angry protests in Kashmir and criticism of India’s ruling party after some of its members opposed charges being laid.
Two ministers from Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) even attended a rally in support of the accused, who included a Hindu priest and local police officers.
India has long been plagued by shocking levels of violence against women and children. The reported number of rapes rose by 60 per cent to 40,000 annually from 2012 to 2016 according to government statistics.
However, this figure is thought to be a gross underestimate with 99 per cent of sexual violence cases unreported due to pressure from close family members, according to the National Family Health Survey.
The trial originally began over a year ago in Pathankot, a town around 44 miles (70km) from Kathua but was moved to the neighbouring state of Punjab after the girl’s family and lawyer said they faced death threats.
The three men who were found guilty of the rape and murder – priest and retired government officer Sanjj Ram, police officer Deepak Khajuria and Parvesh Kumar – were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Surinder Kumar, Tilak Raj and Anand Dutta, also police officers, were convicted of the lesser crimes of destroying evidence and sentenced to five years in prison.
“This is a victory of truth,” prosecution lawyer M Farooqi told reporters outside the court.
The legal team representing the accused said they plan to appeal the verdict, while prosecutors, who had sought the death penalty, said they would consider challenging the sentence.
The girl’s father, Mohammed Akhtar, told the Associated Press that the men should be “punished speedily, not just convicted.”
“Our family has gone through hell,” he said. “Our hearts are bleeding. These beasts should be hanged.”
A seventh man known only as Vishal was found not guilty and an eighth – a juvenile – is awaiting trial.
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