Delhi 'open' mind on juvenile law

New Delhi, Feb. 12: Law minister Ashwani Kumar today said the government had an "open" mind on changes in the juvenile justice act and the recently introduced Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance to ensure a credible deterrent that wouldn't lend itself to abuse.

He said the "final shape" to the new criminal law would emerge after a "comprehensive debate" in Parliament but didn't set a time frame for changes in the JJ Act, 2000.

The minister's comments, in an interview to The Telegraph, came amid a growing clamour for lowering the age of juvenile offenders from 18 to 16 in the wake of the eventually fatal bus gang rape in the capital.

The youngest among the accused, said to be the most brutal of the six, is not yet 18 and will be tried under the juvenile act, which prescribes a maximum sentence of three years in a reformatory home.

Kumar acknowledged the divergent views on the ordinance, which got the President's nod earlier this month, but said it was just the "starting" point.

"We are open to suggestions. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance was the response of a responsive government to the sensitivity of the people in the aftermath of the horrific tragedy in Delhi. The ordinance was brought forward in a record time of eight days in recognition of the need for urgency to address the expectations of the people," he said.

"But this is the starting point and not the final shape of the law which will emerge after a comprehensive debate in Parliament."

The ordinance, which entails changes in criminal laws by amending the penal code, criminal procedure code and the evidence act, includes a provision for capital punishment for rapes that lead to death or leave the victims in a "persistent vegetative state".

Under existing penal code provisions, the maximum sentence for rape is life imprisonment.

"We will bring the ordinance for approval in the forthcoming session of Parliament, in the meanwhile the government will give most thoughtful consideration to various views expressed by experts and jurists so as to ensure that the law is both credible but not draconian in its implementation," Kumar said.

"But the fine-tuning of (the) law must ensure that it serves its purpose without lending itself to abuse by law enforcing agencies," he added.

"There is no finality. We are open to any constructive suggestion or ideas… it should be an effective deterrent without becoming oppressive."

The minister said the government would examine the different views expressed on the need to amend the juvenile act in the context of growing criticism that juveniles were committing heinous crimes like rape and murder and escaping tough punishment.

He said the demand for changes in the act would be "suitably" considered. "There are divergent views and very strong divergent views. These things have to be considered very carefully."

On the controversy surrounding Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru's recent execution, he said it was the "culmination of a legal process" that ended with the rejection of the mercy petition by the President.

"The due process of law has been followed at every step. All the three courts had unanimously upheld the death sentence as one of the rarest of rare cases," he said but refused further comment.

The minister said the government intends to bring in "suitable political reforms" and added that the newly appointed Law Commission chairman, Justice D.K. Jain, a former judge of the Supreme Court, had been requested to submit a report by April.

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