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India Debates Lowering Age to Prosecute Youths as Adults

Police detain Indian youth protesting the release of a minor convicted in a fatal 2012 gang rape in New Delhi, India, Dec.20, 2015.

In India, the release of the youngest convict in the 2012 gang rape of a physiotherapy student has led to growing calls for passing a proposed law that would allow 16-year-olds accused of heinous crimes to be tried and punished as adults. But child rights and human activists warn that lowering the juvenile age from 18 would adversely impact tens of thousands of young people in the country.

On Monday, the Supreme Court rejected a plea to extend detention of the young man who was 17 when he, along with five others, brutally raped Jyoti Singh in the capital New Delhi. She later died of her injuries. The judges told the public, "We share your concerns, but our hands are tied by the existing law."

Tried as a juvenile, he was released Sunday after serving the maximum punishment under the Juvenile Justice Act: three years in a correction home. The country’s top court said there are no legal grounds to hold the convict, who is now under the care of a charity and whose identity cannot be revealed.

His release has triggered anguished protests from the victim’s parents and many others. They demand that he be given a harsher punishment for the 23-year-old woman’s rape. They point out that while four others involved in the rape and murder are facing the death sentence, he is a free man.

Proposed amendment

The lower house of parliament has passed an amendment to the law that would allow a juvenile board to determine whether youths ages 16 to 18 who are involved in a heinous crime can be tried and punished as adults. But the bill has yet to be debated and cleared by the upper house, which has been paralyzed by opposition protests for days.

Swati Maliwal, who heads the Delhi Commission for Women that filed the petition in the Supreme Court, slammed lawmakers for not passing the law. “That law is still pending, they are not passing it. I feel women will have to take to the streets, holding torches,” Maliwal said.

The proposed changes have the backing of the government, which contends they would provide a deterrent and improve women’s safety, a subject in the spotlight after the horrific gang rape.

Maneka Gandhi, federal minister for women and child development, recently cited police statistics that 50 percent of all sexual crimes are committed by 16- to 18-year-olds aware the law’s lenience.

But child rights activists say juveniles are responsible for only a fraction of reported rapes and murders. They say the new law will undermine juvenile justice in a country where most young offenders are poor, illiterate and, in many cases, literally left to fend for themselves on the street.

Neglected youth

The government should look at the reasons driving youth crime, said Colin Gonslaves, founder of the New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network.

“When you have millions of children on the street, neglected by the state and brutally treated by sections of society, what do you expect these young people to grow up as?” he laments. “They grow up with the feeling that rape and violence is part of normal human behavior. Does the state look after these people? There ought not to be any juveniles on the streets of India.”

The young convict involved in the gang rape came from a dirt-poor village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. He left home as a young child and survived by doing odd jobs.

The Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM), an Indian charity, has rehabilitated hundreds of juveniles, including many convicted of heinous crimes. Its executive director, Rajesh Kumar, said the law must continue to focus on reforming them, which he considers possible in virtually all cases.

"Hundred percent. No doubt. We have treated more than 1,000 kids and I have not seen a single kid who is not ready to get reformed," he said. "There are a lot of boys who want to come back into the mainstream of society. Society does not want to accept them."

Anger rises

But anger continues to run high in New Delhi, where more protests took place Monday. Young men and women held up placards saying, "A rapist is a rapist."

And the gang rape victim’s anguished parents, who have been on the protest front lines, vowed to continue fighting for tougher laws to make India safer for women.

Asha Devi, whose daughter died days after her December 2012 attack, said tearfully: "The bill has been going from this house of parliament to that house. So many girls have been sacrificed. I will be thankful even now if the bill is passed."

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