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Indian Panel Calls For New Sexual Assault Laws

An Indian government panel is calling for the strict enforcement of sexual assault laws, tougher jail terms and changes to the country's outdated penal code to protect women in the wake of last month's brutal gang rape in New Delhi.

The head of the three-member panel, Chief Justice J.S. Verma, said stricter penalties and speedier prosecutions would deter would-be attackers and that he hoped India's parliament would act on the legislative suggestions the committee had offered.

Most of India's laws, including those on rape, date back to British colonial rule. They currently stipulate rapists should serve a minimum of seven years in prison and a maximum life term - in practice, normally commuted to 10-14 years. Gang-rape convicts face a minimum 10 years and a maximum life term.

The panel recommended that law enforcement officers and other officials who fail to act against crimes targeting women be punished. It also called for reforming the way police treat rape victims, ending political interference in sex crime cases and banning a traumatic vaginal exams of rape victims.

Women's groups say the most egregious problem is the medical test, administered to determine if the woman is sexually active and often taken as evidence of consent to intercourse.

Last month's gang rape, the victim of which died of her injuries, sparked outrage across the nation. The panel received more than 80,000 suggestions from the public for a complete overhaul in the criminal justice system's treatment of violence against women.

Indian women say they are so frightened of public groping and other forms of sexual harassment that many travel in groups, leave home only during daylight hours and carry sharp objects to protect themselves.

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