World News

Indian police arrest main suspect in gang rape and murder of teenager

Posted May 5, 2018 12:38 p.m. EDT
Updated May 7, 2018 2:28 a.m. EDT

— The main suspect in the alleged gang rape of a 16-year-old girl, who was later burned to death, has been arrested, police said on Sunday.

The suspect, who police have named as Dhanu Bhuiyan, is among 20 men accused of participating in the alleged incident, the latest high-profile sexual assault case to shock India.

Bhuiyan, who has yet to be formally charged, was arrested on Saturday in the northeastern state of Jharkhand, local authorities confirmed.

Police have so far detained 15 people in connection to the case, including the local village chief.

Police said Saturday they are waiting for a medical board to conduct an autopsy of the girl's body, before proceeding with the investigation.

The 16-year-old girl, whose identity is protected under Indian law, was allegedly kidnapped from her home in rural Jharkhand Thursday night, while her family attended a wedding. She was then taken to a nearby forest and raped by a group of men, said Ashok Ram, the officer in charge of the local police station.

The family said they approached the village council on Friday seeking justice.

The village council ordered the accused men to do 100 situps and imposed a fine of 50,000 rupees ($750).

The men were so enraged by the penalty, they assaulted the victim's parents and set their house on fire with the help of friends, killing the girl who was inside at the time, said Ram.

Village councils in India, called panchayats, wield significant power in rural villages throughout India and can dole out punishment. Removed from cities and the court systems, panchayats resolve local disputes simply because they're the only recourse available in remote areas.

Critics denounce them as kangaroo courts and say they perpetuate patriarchy. These councils do not have any legal authority.

Raghubar Das, the chief minister of the state of Jharkhand, tweeted that he was heartbroken by the incident.

"There is no place for such barbaric acts in a civilized society," he said.

String of rapes

The incident comes amid a series of brutal rape cases that have shocked the South Asian nation and sparked widespread protests.

Earlier this year, the gang rape and killing of an 8-year-old Muslim girl in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir inflamed religious tensions.

In April, the body of a young girl, believed to be around 11 was found in Surat, Gujarat. The official post-mortem report revealed that she had injuries consistent with rape, torture and strangulation.

In January, a string of five alleged rapes, mostly of minors, within five days in the northern Indian state of Haryana provoked widespread condemnation.

The cases have renewed public anger over sexual violence, which was first put on spotlight in 2012 when the gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi generated global headlines. The girl, widely referred to as Nirbhaya -- meaning "fearless" in Hindi -- was hurt so severely that some internal organs had to be removed, and she died two weeks after the attack.

In the months following her death, the government passed numerous legislative reforms to increase penalties for sexual violence, including extending the length of prison sentences and introducing the death penalty.

Last month, India's Cabinet passed an executive order to make the rape of a girl younger than 12 punishable by death The change in the law will become permanent once it gains approval by India's Parliament, which is currently in recess.