Activists welcome India's anti-rape law, with caution

Campaigners welcomed a toughening of laws in India Wednesday for sex crimes but said they were not enough to tackle a crisis underpinned by cultural attitudes, including from "sexist" lawmakers.

India's lower house on Tuesday passed a bill increasing punishment for sex offenders, including the death penalty if a victim dies, three months after the fatal gang-rape of a student on a bus in Delhi sparked nationwide protests.

Women's rights activists hailed the legislation for broadening the definition of sexual assault to include molestation of private parts and for doubling the minimum prison sentence for gang-rape to 20 years.

It also allows for the death sentence if a rape victim dies or is left in a persistent vegetative state. Under existing laws, rapists face a minimum seven-year jail term.

Ranjana Kumari, director of the non-profit Centre for Social Research, praised the decision to include a penalty for police officials who fail to register assault or harassment cases filed by women.

"This will go a long way in ending the culture of shame that surrounds victims of sexual crimes, so they don't feel afraid to approach police when they are attacked," Kumari told AFP.

But the bill still had huge holes, she added, citing lawmakers' refusal to criminalise marital rape or raise the punishment for acid attacks, from a minimum seven-year jail term to a proposed life imprisoment sentence.

"Their failure to increase punishment for such a gruesome and commonplace crime like acid attacks, where a woman suffers every day for the rest of her life clearly sends a message that they don't take it seriously," she said.

The new laws also make no special provision for incest and fail to meet demands from some lawmakers for tougher sentences for child trafficking.

The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, which must now be approved by the upper house, was passed the same day that a British tourist jumped off her hotel balcony in the Taj Mahal city of Agra in a bid to escape an alleged sex attack.

That incident came just days after a Swiss cyclist was gang-raped in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh on Friday night in a brutal assault observers said underscored risks women face in the country of 1.2 billion people.

"These attacks put India in a very bad light, letting the whole world know that we cannot provide safety, either to our own women or to foreign visitors," Kumari said.

The legislation also creates penalties for newly-defined offences including stalking and voyeurism, in a move attacked by leading parliamentarians who said such actions did not merit punishment.

"Who amongst us have not followed girls?" Sharad Yadav, a veteran politician from the regional Janata Dal (United) party said, evoking laughter from his fellow male MPs.

Female Communist Party lawmaker Brinda Karat excoriated the remarks, saying "parliament shamed India yesterday with its highly sexist, regressive commentary during the discussion on the bill".

"It just shows how far-distanced lawmakers are from actual social realities," Karat told AFP.

Some analysts have raised concerns, however, that the rush to put tougher penalties in place and defuse public anger over the issue, may create further problems for India's already beleaguered justice system.

Supreme Court lawyer Nikhil Mehra, who earlier sat on a government-appointed panel looking into sex crime, said the new legislation carried risks of "improper application" by poorly-trained police officials.

"The police officials don't even understand what stalking means, and they are going to penalise it, without adequate monitoring of the suspect, without proof? It creates many possibilities for error," he told AFP.

"You need large-scale structural reform in this country to remedy this crisis. Unless you can provide police with better training and massively increase the number of legal officers, you are not going to fix anything."