Gang rape trial over, yet thousands of victims await justice

By Nita Bhalla

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Miles away from India's capital, a mother-of-two who makes a living cobbling shoes, knows nothing about the fatal gang-rape of a young woman in New Delhi and the furious street protests that followed her grisly ordeal on a moving bus.

And she won't have heard about the guilty verdict passed down by a court on Tuesday on four men accused of the assault.

The 49-year-old low-caste woman was herself raped, by four policemen in a village police station in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. That was four years ago, and she is still waiting for justice.

"It's taking a long time. I've been to the court so many times, but still I am waiting. Each time, the hearing is delayed and delayed," says the woman, speaking by telephone from Jamwada village in Betul district.

"It's been four years. It is costly and time-consuming to keep going to court, but I want those men who did this to me to get what they deserve. I don't know when that will be or if it will ever happen," said the woman, who cannot be identified.

A special fast-track court took seven months to pronounce a verdict in the Delhi gang rape, a shocking assault that made headlines around the globe and sparked debate in India about an unbridled culture of crimes against women.

But human rights lawyers say the outcry over the Delhi case made it an exception to the rule of a criminal justice system that fails thousands of rape victims in India. For them, the judicial process is archaic, under-resourced, gender-insensitive and painfully slow.

"While we applaud this verdict and the relative speed with which the trial was conducted, we mourn the fact that there are so many survivors out there who are neither getting any kind of media attention, nor are they getting any kind of judicial attention," says Rebecca Mammen John, a Supreme Court lawyer. "As a result, their cases are languishing in courts with no end in sight."

JUSTICE DELAYED, JUSTICE DENIED

Police in New Delhi say that only 4 out of 10 rapes are reported, largely because of the deep-rooted conservatism of Indian society, where many victims are scared to come forward for fear of being "shamed" by their family and communities.

Those who do report a rape face numerous challenges in getting attackers put behind bars - dealing with apathetic police, unsympathetic medical examinations and no counselling, shoddy police investigations and weak prosecutions.

One of the biggest obstacles to winning justice for rape victims is the length of the trials. An average case can take a court five to 10 years to reach judgment, legal experts say.

India has far too few courts, judges and prosecutors for its 1.2 billion people. It has one-fifth of the number of judges per capita that the United States has, and there is a backlog of millions of cases.

There are more than 23,000 rape cases alone pending before the high courts, according to the law ministry. The process is so drawn out that many cases are dropped and the accused acquitted long before all the evidence is heard and a judgment pronounced.

The victims often become tired and disillusioned, unable to spend the time and money required to attend the court hearings, and some just want to get on with their lives. Victims are also sometimes intimidated during lengthy trials by the accused who are, in some cases, granted bail by the court.

As a result, victims can be bullied into accepting illegal "out-of-court" settlements such as a small cash payment. In more extreme instances, the victim's family is pressured into marrying their daughter to the accused. There is no witness protection programme in India.

Shaken by the outrage over the Delhi rape, the government now plans to set up 1,800 fast-track courts across the country to try violent crimes against women, children and the elderly.

But legal experts and women's rights groups say fast-track courts are only part of the solution and broader judicial reforms are required, such as recruitment of more judges and prosecutors as well as substantial investments in establishing more courts.

"This verdict is welcomed but this case should not be an exceptional one due to all the media attention," warned Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, after Tuesday's verdict.

"Rather it should set a standard. It should say that in each and every instance of sexual violence against women in India, there should be delivery of a speedy and fair verdict. It cannot be tokenism. It has to be for all women."

(Additional reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by John Chalmers and Ron Popeski)

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