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Indian Village Councils Under Fire Over 'Farcical' Punishment to Rape Suspects

Schoolgirls holding placards participate in a protest rally against the rape of two teenage girls in Chatra and Pakur districts of eastern state of Jharkhand, in Ranchi, India, May 8, 2018.

India's traditional village councils must be prosecuted for acting as de-facto courts, activists said on Tuesday, after a teenage gang-rape victim was burned to death in apparent retaliation for the punishments handed down by one.

The 16-year-old victim was killed after her parents reported her kidnap and rape to their village council, which imposed a fine of 50,000 rupees (552 pounds) on the two accused and ordered them to do 100 sit-ups.

Shortly afterwards, a mob set fire to their house in the eastern state of Jharkhand, killing the girl - an attack human rights activists say could have been prevented had the original crime been reported to police.

"They [council] abused their authority, acting as judge and jury to come up with this farcical decision, which resulted in a miscarriage of justice and loss of life," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"They should have informed the police, especially since it was a crime involving a minor. What they have done is illegal and must be properly punished," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

India's often male-dominated village councils hold huge sway, particularly in rural areas, settling disputes on everything from land and cattle to matrimony and murder.

They are coming under growing scrutiny for regressive and illegal edicts ranging from banning women from wearing western clothing and using mobile phones to supporting child marriage and sanctioning so-called honor killings.

But political ties mean they remain largely immune from prosecution, said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, a Delhi-based women's advocacy group.

"They are bullies of the village and their extra-constitutional actions create a culture of rape with impunity."

"Politicians need to stop using them, supporting them, encouraging them and end this illegal parallel justice system."

Ravi Kant, founder of charity Shakti Vahini which recently challenged the role of the village councils in India's Supreme Court, said such punishments served "the opposite of justice".

"Girls become very vulnerable and that's why we need to bring the fear of the law," Kant said.

"People who intervene illegally in such cases, they need to be booked [charged], so that a strong message can be sent."

India toughened its laws on sexual violence and promised to speed up trials after the fatal gang rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi in 2012 sparked mass protests.

Last month the government approved the death penalty for the rape of girls younger than 12 following the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl.

But activists say too little has been done to implement the laws and sexual violence remains common.

Police have now arrested 15 people over the teenager's gang rape and opened a case against several others including members of the village council for failing to report the allegations.