India top court suspends ruling on man who molested girl after outcry

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s top court on Wednesday suspended a lower court’s ruling reducing the punishment for a man who groped a girl after the verdict sparked an outcry in a country where crimes against women have become politically contentious.

A woman checks her mobile phone inside the premises of the Supreme Court in New Delhi, India, September 28, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis/Files

Rights groups and politicians had warned that the lower court’s decision could undermine efforts to crack down on assaults on girls and women in India, which in 2018 introduced the death penalty for rapes of girls under the age of 12.

The High Court of Bombay last week punished the man, convicted of pressing the breasts of a 12-year-old girl through her clothes, under a less-stringent penal code instead of a 2012 law protecting children from sexual offences, as there was no “skin to skin (contact) with sexual intent without penetration”.

A High Court judge had ordered a one-year jail term for the man instead of three years he was ordered by another court under the 2012 law.

The chief justice of India, in a hearing in New Delhi, issued a notice to the state government of Maharashtra, where the incident occurred in 2016, and permitted the attorney-general to file an appeal against the ruling.

“We stay the order and issue notice,” Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde said.

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights had earlier urged Maharashtra to appeal against the initial court verdict.

The rape, torture and murder of a 23-year-old student on a bus in New Delhi in 2013 sparked an outcry and big protests.

The attack prompted India to enact tough laws against sexual violence, including the death penalty for rape in some cases, but implementation has been poor and attacks have shown no sign of letting up.

Four men convicted of the 2013 attack were hanged last year.

At 148,185 cases, India reported a 7.3% increase in crimes against children in 2019 from a year earlier, according to the most recent government data.

Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Robert Birsel