An Indian court on Monday sentenced three Hindu men, including a police officer, to life imprisonment for kidnapping, raping and murdering an 8-year-old Muslim girl in Indian-controlled Kashmir, in a case that has exacerbated tensions in the disputed region. Judge Tejwinder Singh sentenced three other policemen to five years in prison for destroying evidence, prosecutor Santokh Singh told reporters.
The judge acquitted another defendant due to insufficient evidence. An eighth suspect, a minor, will be tried separately by a juvenile court, Santokh Singh said.
The girl, who was a member of a nomadic tribe, was grazing her family's ponies in the forests of the Himalayan foothills when she was kidnapped in January 2018. Her mutilated body was found in the woods a week later.
Sexual violence, including against children, is rife in India and outrage over the so-called Kathua case contributed to the government introducing the death penalty for child rapists, the AFP news agency reports. Investigators suggested that the girl was targeted in order to strike fear in her tribe and drive them out of the area.
The case sparked protests across Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region where rebels have been fighting for years for independence or unification with Pakistan and there is great distrust of the government. Singh said prosecutors plan to appeal to a higher court and seek the death penalty for the three defendants who received life sentences.
Thousands of members of a radical Hindu group had demanded the release of the defendants, insisting they were innocent. The trial was shifted to Pathankot, a town in neighboring Punjab state, following accusations that local Hindu leaders and politicians were trying to block the investigation.
The prosecution said the girl was raped in a small village temple in Kathua district after having been kept sedated for four days, and was then bludgeoned to death. Among the three convicted of rape and murder were village head Sanjhi Ram and special police officer Deepak Khajuria, AFP reported.
The girl's father, Mohammed Akhtar, told The Associated Press by phone 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."
India has been shaken by a series of sexual assaults in recent years, including the gang rape and murder of a student on a New Delhi bus in 2012. That attack galvanized a country where widespread violence against women had long been quietly accepted.
While the government has passed a series of laws increasing punishment for rape, it's rare for more than a few weeks to pass without another brutal sexual assault being reported. Nearly 20,000 child rape cases were reported in 2016, according to official data, while a 2014 U.N. report said one in three rape victims was a minor, AFP reported.