India parliament approves bill toughening rape laws

India's lower house on Tuesday passed a bill toughening punishment for sex offenders, including the death penalty if a victim dies, after the fatal gang-rape of a student that sparked national outrage.

Members of the decision-making lower house of parliament approved the legislation, which also contains new penalties for stalking, groping, voyeurism and acid attacks.

The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, which must now be approved by the upper house, provides for a minimum 20-year prison sentence for gang-rape, which can be extended to life in jail.

It also allows for the death sentence if a rape victim dies or is left in a vegetative state. Under existing laws, rapists face seven to 10 years in jail.

"This is just a first step in a journey of 1,000 miles," Harsimrat Kaur Badal, a female MP from the regional Shiromani Akali Dal party, said at the conclusion of a seven-hour debate.

The bill's approval came four days after a 39-year-old Swiss cyclist was gang-raped in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh in an attack observers said underscored risks women face in the country of 1.2 billion people.

It also came on the day a female British tourist suffered leg injuries when she jumped out of a hotel window in fear of being sexually assaulted in the Indian city of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal.

The victim, who was not named but was in her early 30s, was admitted to hospital after she leapt from the first floor when two men tried to enter her room in the Hotel Agra Mahal at around 4:00 am.

The hotel guest "got frightened so she ran to the other end of the room and jumped out of the window", Pawan Kumar, superintendent of police in Agra, told AFP.

Another officer who took the victim to hospital said she had earlier rejected the hotel manager's persistent overtures offering a massage.

He then returned with a second man and attempted to open the door to her room with a key, said the officer, Swaranjeet, who uses only one name.

Swaranjeet, the deputy superintendent of police in Agra, said the manager had been arrested on charges of harassment and would face court.

A government-appointed panel in January recommended stiffer laws after a 23-year-old student was savagely gang-raped by six men and attacked with an iron bar on a bus on December 16.

She died nearly two weeks later of massive internal injuries, after being airlifted to Singapore for emergency treatment.

Parliamentarians across party lines spoke out Tuesday on the perils women face in India.

"We are today facing an epidemic in the country after the horrific incident of December 16 and it is my shameful admission that there have been 250 rapes since then," said opposition Biju Janata Dal party MP Pinaki Misra.

Supriya Sule of the Congress-led coalition government said the new measures were designed to bring help to the "woman at the bottom of the pyramid who cannot scream out, reach out".

According to government crime statistics, one woman is raped every 20 minutes in India, but most incidents go unreported, mainly due to victims' fears of being stigmatised in the sexually conservative nation.

The death penalty is rarely applied in India. Last month a Kashmiri separatist was executed, three months after the sole surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks was hanged.

Four of the suspects in the December gang-rape of the physiotherapy student are on trial in New Delhi in a specially established fast-track court. They are facing charges of abduction, gang-rape and murder.

A fifth suspect, Ram Singh, was found dead in his prison cell on March 11. Police suspect he hanged himself. The sixth accused is a minor and is standing trial in a juvenile court.