India is to introduce the death penalty for child rapists, in a move aimed at alleviating nationwide protests over a number of brutal and high profile cases.
Those found guilty of sexually assaulting children under 12 will now face execution, under a special ordinance issued by the government and set to be rubber stamped next week.
The change comes amid widespread outrage over the brutal rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and the alleged attack on an unnamed teenager by a politician in Uttar Pradesh.
The current maximum punishment for the crime is life imprisonment – although those found guilty of gang rape already face execution.
The new prosecuting guidelines have been set out in an ordinance by the India prime minister, Narendra Modi, and his ruling cabinet. It is set to be waved through by the president, Ram Nath Kovind, next week.
To become law, it will need to go before parliament within six months – but the punishment will be enforceable in the intervening period.
The country has been facing a growing crisis of sexual violence for some time, commentators say.
This week, thousands of protesters took to city streets across the country over the handling of the investigation into the Kathua case. Government officials, police and some members of Mr Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, have been accused of siding with the accused – eight men who are all Hindu – rather than the victim, who was a Muslim.
Earlier this year, meanwhile, a teenage girl tried to light herself on fire in front of the chief minister’s house to protest at police inaction in her own case. BJP lawmaker Kuldeep Singh Sengar was eventually charged with her rape last week.
The incidents come six years after the fatal gang rape of a young woman on a New Delhi bus caused shock and revulsion around the world and triggered massive street demonstrations across the country.
The government responded at the time by doubling prison terms for rapists to 20 years and criminalising voyeurism, stalking and the trafficking of women. Lawmakers also voted to lower the age at which a person can be tried as an adult for the most serious crimes from 18 to 16.
But the problem of sexual violence has remained, said New Delhi lawyer Abha Singh.
She told the AP news agency that capital punishment would be an increased deterrent. But she urged the government to set a time frame for bringing suspects to justice as Indian courts are notorious for delays, with more than 30 million cases pending.
She said: “The conviction rate in rape cases in India was only 28 per cent, implying that 72 out of 100 suspects are going unpunished.”