By Sugam Pokharel and Chandrika Narayan, CNN
Police in India are investigating the alleged kidnapping and gang rape of a girl who was then burned to death after her parents complained to the local village council seeking justice.
The incident is alleged to have taken place in a rural village in India’s northeastern state of Jharkhand. Police said Saturday they are waiting for a medical board to conduct an autopsy of the girl’s body.
After the parents reported the case to the police, 15 of the 20 accused men were arrested, said Jitendra Kumar Singh, deputy commissioner of the state’s Chatra District. The head of the village council is also in custody, Singh said.
“We are waiting for the outcome of the medical reports and the police investigation report to arrive at a conclusion,” Singh told CNN.
The 16-year-old girl was allegedly kidnapped Thursday night while the family was attending a wedding, then taken to a nearby forest and raped by a group of men, according to Ashok Ram, the officer in charge of the Itkhori police station, which overseas the village.
The family said they approached the village council on Friday seeking justice, he told CNN.
Village councils in India, called panchayats, wield significant power in rural villages throughout India and can dole out punishment. Removed from cities and the court systems, panchayats resolve local disputes simply because they’re the only recourse available in remote areas. Critics denounce them as kangaroo courts and say they perpetuate patriarchy. These councils do not have any legal authority.
The village council ordered the accused men to do 100 situps and imposed a fine of 50,000 rupees ($750), Ram said.
The men were enraged by the penalty, Ram said. They assaulted the victim’s parents and set their house on fire with the help of friends, Ram said. The girl died in the fire, he said.
Raghubar Das, the chief minister of the state of Jharkhand, tweeted that he was heartbroken by the incident.
“There is no place for such barbaric acts in a civilized society,” he said.
String of rapes
The incident comes amid a series of brutal rape cases that have shocked the South Asian nation and sparked widespread protests.
Earlier this year, the gang rape and killing of an 8-year-old Muslim girl in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir inflamed religious tensions.
In April, the body of a young girl, believed to be around 11 was found in Surat, Gujarat. The official post-mortem report revealed that she had injuries consistent with rape, torture and strangulation.
In January, a string of five alleged rapes, mostly of minors, within five days in the northern Indian state of Haryana provoked widespread condemnation.
The cases have renewed public anger over sexual violence, which was first put on spotlight in 2012 when the gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi generated global headlines. The girl, widely referred to as Nirbhaya — meaning “fearless” in Hindi — was hurt so severely that some internal organs had to be removed, and she died two weeks after the attack.
In the months following her death, the government passed numerous legislative reforms to increase penalties for sexual violence, including extending the length of prison sentences and introducing the death penalty.
Last month, India’s Cabinet passed an executive order to make the rape of a girl younger than 12 punishable by death The change in the law will become permanent once it gains approval by India’s Parliament, which is currently in recess.