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Indian legislators pass strict anti-rape law

The Indian Parliament’s lower house passed a landmark law yesterday that sets tougher penalties for rapists and police who refuse to file a woman’s complaint of rape, as well as criminalizing sexual offenses such as stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks.

The amendments to the existing law incorporate some of the sweeping changes that were demanded after the fatal gang rape of a young paramedical student in New Delhi in December, an incident that sparked a nationwide outcry against the lack of safety for women.

Despite the unprecedented protests that galvanized tens of thousands of Indians, the number of incidents of sexual assault has not diminished.

As lawmakers discussed the new law in Parliament yesterday, a British tourist fractured her leg when she jumped from the balcony of her hotel room in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, to escape being molested by the hotel owner, the police said.

Last week, a Swiss tourist was gang-raped while on a bicycle tour of central India.

“I wish to state that we are enacting the strict law to act as a deterrent,” said Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde.

The new law, which the upper house is expected to pass in the current parliamentary session, sets a maximum penalty of death in cases in which a rape victim dies or is left in a “persistent vegetative state.” Those convicted in incidents of gang rape, the rape of a minor or rape by a policeman or public official will now be sentenced to a minimum of 20 years in prison, up from seven to 10 years.

A provision requiring government approval for the trial of policemen, officials, politicians and judges on rape charges has also been lifted.

For the first time, the law criminalizes stalking and voyeurism, acts of sexual harassment that have long been grouped under the benign euphemism “love-teasing.” From now on, rapes that occur during religious and caste riots will also be treated as cases of aggravated sexual assault.

The law does not, however, address contentious issues such as marital rape or the legal impunity afforded Indian military officers. Nor does it include a provision to prohibit politicians charged with rape from running for office.

“The new law is a major gain for us. There are many firsts in this,”said Kavita Krishnan, a women’s rights activist who had led several anti-rape demonstrations in the capital. “It does not address 100 percent of all that we demanded, but we don’t want to delay or deny what we have got in order to wait for that perfect law.”

Some activists working to end the trafficking of minors said that the final version of the law is a watered-down version of what was initially proposed.

“Under the new law, trafficking of a minor is a crime only if rape or sexual exploitation occurs,”said Bhuwan Ribhu, a children’s rights activist. “This law does not try to prevent the whole process of trafficking of minors, which often leads to sexual exploitation. The sexual assault cannot be seen in isolation, but in the whole context of how trafficking takes place. A historic opportunity has been lost.”

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