Eight men accused of gang rape and killing of eight-year-old Indian girl appear in court
Eight Hindu men accused of the gang rape and killing of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in India-administered Kashmir state pleaded not guilty yesterday.
Asifa Bano'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 Asifa was sedated and held captive at a Hindu temple where she was repeatedly raped before being strangled and bludgeoned to death.
The court 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 (BJP) also spoke out in support of the accused.
The case highlights the increasing religious polarisation in India since the BJP swept to power in 2014.
Disgust over the horrific crime led to protests in cities across India over the past few days, with anger fuelled by support for the accused initially shown by ministers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party.
The protests have also focused on another rape incident allegedly involving a BJP lawmaker in the crime-ridden, most populous, poor northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
More rallies demanding action against rapists and violence against women were expected yesterday in the capital and Ahmedabad, the capital of Modi's home state of Gujarat.
Asifa Bano, from a nomadic community that roams the forests of Kashmir, was drugged, held captive in a temple and sexually assaulted for a week before being strangled and battered with a stone in January, the police said.
According to the charge sheet the kidnapping, rape and killing of Asifa was part of a plan to drive the nomads out of Kathua district in Jammu, the mostly Hindu portion of India's only Muslim majority state.
The alleged ringleader, retired bureaucrat Sanji Ram, looked after a small Hindu temple where the girl had been held captive and assaulted.
Two of those on trial were police officers who are accused of being bribed to stifle the investigation.