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India's leaders urge calm after rape victim dies

December 29, 2012|By Tanvi Sharma and Mark Magnier | This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
  • Protesters mourn the rape victim in Mumbai, India.
Protesters mourn the rape victim in Mumbai, India. (Divyakant Solanki / EPA )

NEW DELHI -- Indian riot police blocked major roads, imposed restrictions on “illegal assembly” and shut down  subway stations Saturday as they braced for fresh demonstrations even as politicians appealed for calm following the overnight death of a rape victim at a Singapore hospital from multiple organ failure.

The brutal assault by multiple attackers two weeks ago of a 23-year old paramedical student, who has not been identified, has sparked national soul searching on India’s treatment of women. Thousands have demonstrated across the country, including a large gathering in Delhi a week ago met by police wielding tear gas, water cannons and truncheons.

"I join the nation in conveying to her family and friends my deepest condolences at this terrible loss," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement on his website, calling on citizens to channel their emotions constructively. “It is up to us all to ensure that her death will not have been in vain."

PHOTOS: Fatal rape sparks protests in India

"RIP: India's Daughter," and “India’s brave daughter,” said TV station headlines as the victim’s body along with her family were scheduled to be flown back from Singapore on a chartered aircraft Saturday afternoon. The victim reportedly died of severe organ failure compounded by cerebral edema, a swelling of the brain often suffered by boxers in which excess fluid builds up in the skull, causing extreme pressure and damage to the brain.

"She was courageous in fighting for her life for so long against the odds, but the trauma to her body was too severe for her to overcome," the hospital’s chief executive, Dr. Kelvin Loh, told reporters.

As public anger exploded, Indian officials have struggled to craft a response, with proposals ranging from the petty -- ban curtains in all vehicles (the bus where the rape occurred was equipped with  curtains that hid the attack from view) -- to the draconian, including calls to extend the death penalty to extreme sexual assault cases.  

Six men have been arrested for their alleged roles in the attack and face charges of rape and kidnapping. With the victim’s death, murder charges will probably be added. [Updated 11:20 a.m. Dec. 29: Later Saturday, the six men were charged with murder.] The men reportedly told police they were “looking for fun.” The government has promised to fast-track their trial in a country where cases often take a decade or more.

The government set up two committees, one looking at ways to speed up sexual assault trials and the second charged with looking at systemic lapses after the bus on which the attack took place reportedly passed through several police checkpoints.

Officials also announced plans starting in New Delhi to post the names, addresses and photographs of convicted rapists on official websites to shame them publicly.

“Her death has shaken the conscience of the nation,” said the opposition leader of parliament’s lower house, Sushma Swaraj, in a Twitter message: “We must wake up and make India safe for daughters.” 

But India’s legal system is notoriously creaky and enforcement lax. Families are often afraid to report rapes, fearful of being asked for bribes to fill out police reports or being publicly humiliated. There’s a national rape conviction rate of 25%. In rural communities where the stigma is greatest amid concerns that victims are “tainted goods,”  women are sometimes pressured into marrying their attackers.

A global survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in June found that India was among the worst places to be a woman because of high rates of infanticide, child marriage and economic and sexual slavery.

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Sharma reported from New Delhi and Magnier from Cairo.

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