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India shaken by rape, murder of veterinarian, 26, on her way home

New Delhi: It was about 9pm when the young woman returned to the toll plaza where she had parked her red scooter. It had a flat tyre, and a group of men nearby offered to help.

Then they grabbed her, police said, took turns raping her and smothered her to death. They tried burning the evidence of the crime: Her charred body was found the next morning, identified by her elephant-shaped locket and a white scarf nearby.

Indian police officers inspect the site where the woman’s burned body was found.Credit:AP

Last week's murder of the 26-year-old veterinarian in the South Indian city of Hyderabad has provoked outrage and anguish across India, the latest in a series of gruesome, high-profile crimes against women and girls. Police arrested four men and said they had confessed to the killing.

Speaking in Parliament on Monday, India's defence minister called it an "inhuman" crime that has "brought shame to the entyre country."

The veterinarian's murder recalled the brutal rape and killing of another young woman who was attacked in 2012 after boarding a private bus on the way home from a movie. Her death prompted mass protests and ushered in a flurry of measures aimed at combating such crimes – harsher sentences, fast-track courts and a government fund dedicated to women's safety.

The agonised commentary in the wake of the Hyderabad case reflects the fear that these measures are not doing enough. M. Venkaiah Naidu, India's vice president, called on Monday for further changes to the country's laws and judicial system.

Do not make the "mistake of attributing [it] to one state or one city," he said. "It is a societal weakness, a societal disease. It is sort of a lacuna in our systems, both legal as well as police systems."

India's most recent national crime statistics show about 33,000 rapes reported in 2017, marking a decrease from the prior two years. Advocates say that India's official figures understate the scope of the problem, with the vast majority of victims still unlikely to approach the authorities.

Victims who do report rapes face a long and uncertain legal process. "It takes a particularly dogged survivor of sexual assault – almost an activist – to stay the course," said Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court lawyer. About 25 per cent of such cases result in conviction, she said, a higher rate than in Britain or South Africa.

After news of the veterinarian's murder spread, demonstrations erupted in Hyderabad over the weekend. Thousands of people protested at a police station near where the woman's body was found and outside the gated compound where her family lives. In New Delhi, a young woman was arrested for holding a sign in a high-security area outside Parliament that read "Why can't I feel safe in my own India?"

Hundreds of people gathered to protest following the death of the 26-year-old woman.Credit:AP

As outrage swelled, authorities promised swift and forceful justice. But in the hours after the victim's disappearance, the initial reaction was indifference. Her family went to the local police station to seek help but the officers failed to inform their superiors or report the incident to a centralised control room, said Prakash Reddy, a deputy commissioner of police. Three police officers from the station were subsequently suspended.

While government officials expressed horror at the crime, they also made comments that blamed the victim. A senior politician said that the woman would have been saved had she called the police emergency line, rather than her sister, upon realising that she had a flat tyre. The chief minister of the state of Telangana, where Hyderabad is located, used the incident to argue that some female state employees should not work after dark.

The police quickly arrested four men in their 20s for the crime. Two of the alleged perpetrators worked hauling truckloads of bricks and other cargo, a police document said, and they had parked their vehicle at a busy toll plaza near Hyderabad's airport.

The four men had been drinking whisky on November 27 when the young woman parked her scooter nearby and went to a dermatology appointment, police said. While she was gone, they deflated her tyre and made a plan to assault her. When she returned, they offered to take her scooter to get the tyre refilled. She made one call before they returned – to her younger sister – and said that she was afraid.

Attempts to identify lawyers for the four alleged perpetrators were unsuccessful and it is unclear if they currently have legal representation. One local bar association said that its members had passed a resolution not to represent the accused in the case, citing a "moral responsibility to give support to the family of the victim."

This publication is withholding the woman's identity because Indian courts have ruled that the names of victims of sexual assault and harassment should not be publicly disclosed. But her name has been widely circulated on social media and by some news outlets.

The victim's younger sister Bhavya was the last relative she spoke to before she was killed. Bhavya said that recalling her sister's last words made her weep and that she hoped no one else would experience such sorrow. On Monday, the family went to a river to scatter the victim's remains.

The Washington Post

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