NEW DELHI - An Indian court has sentenced three men to life imprisonment for the brutal rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in Indian Kashmir, in a case that sparked nationwide outrage.
The young Muslim girl was kidnapped last January while she was alone in a field grazing horses, tortured, drugged, and repeatedly raped inside a small Hindu temple for five days. She was then bludgeoned with a rock and her body dumped in a forest near Kathua district.
The three men convicted include a retired government official and a police officer.
Three other police officers were handed five-year sentences for destruction of evidence. One man was acquitted and a juvenile will be tried in a separate court.
The girl, who belonged to a Muslim nomadic tribe, was targeted as part of a plan to frighten the community into leaving the Hindu-dominated area, according to investigators.
In Jammu and Kashmir - the only Muslim majority state that simmers with tensions, the sexual assault exposed a religious divide when the arrest and trial of the Hindu men for the rape of a Muslim girl prompted protests by right-wing Hindu groups and lawyers. The protesters included two senior leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Jammu and Kashmir they resigned after the case came under the national spotlight.
In cities across India, members of an outraged public took to the streets demanding justice for the young girl and the Supreme Court ordered that the trial should be held in a neighboring state.
Lawyers representing the victim's family said they would appeal in a higher court to seek the death penalty. Defense lawyers, meanwhile, said the case was based on 'circumstantial evidence,' and that they would appeal the conviction in a higher court.
'Justice will be done if the perpetrators are hanged,' the eight year old's father told reporters before the sentences were pronounced.
The chairman of the National Commission for Women, Rekha Sharma, also said the men should get the death penalty 'to set an example for others because cases against minors are increasing.'
The Kathua rape was one of the cases that prompted India to tighten laws for sexual assault. It introduced the death penalty for the rape of children under the age of 12. In April of last year, India increased minimum prison terms from 10- to 20 years for the rape of girls under age 16.
The stricter laws, however, appear to have done little to deter incidents of sexual violence.According to government figures, instances of child rape account for nearly half of the total cases that are reported. Nearly 19,000 such cases rape were registered in 2016, or more than 50 each day.
Some blame a slow-moving justice system. While the trial in the rape and murder of the 8-year-old girl was completed in 16 months in a fast track court, many sexual assault cases languish in the courts, usually dragging on for years.