New Delhi: India's Supreme Court on Monday ordered the trial of eight men accused of the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl to be moved to another state after her family and lawyer said they faced death threats.
The girl, from a nomadic community that roams the forests of Indian-administered-Kashmir, was drugged, held captive in a temple and physically assaulted for a week before being strangled and battered to death with a stone in January.
Her case caused a wave of revulsion around the country but also exposed communal divisions after two former ministers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party joined a rally in support of the eight accused, saying they were innocent.
One is a retired local government official and two are police officers. The victim's relatives said they feared retribution if they pursued her case in the small town of Kathua, near where the girl was killed.
A bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra said the trial would be held in Pathankot in the neighbouring state of Punjab, and in camera, so that witnesses could be assured of protection.
"We are transferring the case to Pathankot from Kathua for a fair trial," the court said in its order. The case will be heard daily so that an early verdict can be reached, in a country where such cases can run for years, or even decades.
India introduced the death penalty for rapists of girls below the age of 12 last month in response to the outrage over the gang rape of the girl in Kathua. The law does not apply retrospectively. The Kathua case reignited memories of the similarly brutal gang rape of a woman on a Delhi bus in 2012 who later died of her injuries.
The 2012 case also led to the toughening of laws to deter crimes against women, but a rape epidemic shows no sign of dying down in part because investigation of such crimes is still inadequate and convictions rare.
Often the accused are powerful. "The basic concern is fair trial, basic concern is speedy trial. That is the reason the court said there will be day-to-day hearing," said Deepika Singh Rajawat, lawyer for the girl's family, who cannot be identified under Indian law. Rajawat had said she herself faced the risk of personal attack for taking up the case of the girl.