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Record rape sentence rocks Australia

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- A record 55-year sentence handed down to a gang rapist in an Australia court has left the legal profession and community groups divided over the merits of such severe sentencing.

The 20-year-old Sydney man will serve a minimum of 40 years without parole for his role as ringleader in the gang rape of four women in western Sydney in August 2000.

Two other men have been handed prison terms of 23 and 18 years for their involvement in the rapes.

While Thursday's sentence was welcomed by many as setting a new benchmark for the punishment of gang rape, the Law Council of Australia has questioned the ruling.

It says the sentence risks being out of proportion with the crime and could offend the families of other victims of crime whose attackers were jailed for far less time.

"We must keep a sense of proportion in our criminal justice system," Law Council of Australia spokesman John North told the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABC).

"We can't lock everybody up forever or we will just turn back to the sort of society that founded Australia in the first place, with transportation and ridiculous sentences for minor crimes."

New South Wales Premier Bob Carr says the ruling will be welcomed by the community.

"If it represents a new benchmark then that's what the community is asking for and that's what's justified," he said in a statement.

In handing down the sentence on Thursday, Judge Michael Finnane said the rapist was "a menace to civilized society."

He said the brutality of the rapes resembled wartime atrocities, with one woman being "passed from hand to hand because she was a commodity."

Racially motivated?

The case first hit Australian headlines as a racially motivated crime because the gang of young men were of Lebanese descent and told their victims they targeted Australian women.

The victims told of their attackers boasting they were Muslims and that they were targeting "Aussie pigs" with "Leb style" rapes.

The president of the Australian Lebanese Association defended the ruling, saying the law had done its job.

"If you commit a crime beyond imaginable human behaviour, you should be put away and the key thrown away. This is not excessive," he told local press.

Altogether 14 men, all of Lebanese origin, have been convicted or pleaded guilty to gang rapes and sexual assaults involving seven victims over a two-month period.

As his sentence was read out in court, the defendant proclaimed his innocence before screaming an obscenity at the judge who told him he would not be eligible for parole until February 2040.

"At that stage he will have been in custody for 40 years. Hopefully he will no longer be a menace to society," the judge said.

By comparison only a handful of severe prison terms have been given by judges in the state of New South Wales.

In 1998, a man who pleaded guilty to 29 violent sex offences against 10 young people during a six-month period, was sentenced to 34 years and eight months in prison.




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