NEW: Violence against women is "entrenched," a rights activist says
Three brothers have been accused of rape and murder by the girls' families
Two of them have been arrested; the other is being sought by police
A police officer has also been arrested amid allegations of siding with the suspects
A police officer and two other people have been arrested after two teenage girls were gang-raped and left hanging from the branches of a mango tree in a northern Indian village, authorities said Friday.
The shocking attack on the girls – two cousins aged 14 and 16 – sparked outrage in the village of Katra Sadatganj and beyond.
Angry villagers protested around the bodies, preventing police from taking them down from the tree for about 15 hours Wednesday, the day after the attack, said Mukesh Saxena, a local police official.
A photo from the village, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, showed the body of one girl, dressed in a green tunic and pants, hanging from the tree. A large group of people, many of them young children, were gathered around the grisly scene.
Police said an autopsy confirmed the girls had been raped and strangled. The cremation of their remains took place late Wednesday night in line with Hindu customs, Saxena said.
Armed police officers have been deployed in the village to prevent any further unrest, he added.
Police under scrutiny
The girls’ families accused three brothers of carrying out the rape and killing. Two of the brothers are now in custody, said R.K.S. Rathore, a deputy-inspector general of police. One was arrested Thursday night, he said.
Police are still searching for the third brother.
The families of the victims have accused local police of initially failing to respond and siding with the suspects when the parents went to report the case. The allegations have fueled anger among the villagers.
Saxena said three police officers have been temporarily suspended for negligence of duty, and one has been arrested.
He said the girls had gone out into the orchard to relieve themselves Tuesday night when they were grabbed by the attackers.
Some people saw the abduction but were unable to stop it, he said, citing eyewitnesses.
The horrific gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi in late 2012 shook India, focusing sharp attention on violent crimes against women in the country, the world’s second most populous after China.
The case prompted protests in many cities, soul-searching in the media and changes to the law. But shocking instances of sexual violence continue to come to light with grim regularity.
“Laws can only do so much when you have to end something which is as endemic and as entrenched as violence against women,” said Divya Iyer, a senior researcher for Amnesty International in Bangalore, India.
The country’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, has said he wants to take steps to make sure woman are safe, particularly in rural India. But women’s rights groups have criticized what they say is a lack of specific proposals to tackle the problem, suggesting gender inequality doesn’t appear to be high on his list of priorities.
“There is a lot more to do,” Iyer told CNN. “That political leadership is unfortunately missing.”
An opinion article in The Times of India, a prominent daily newspaper, linked the attack this week to rising crime and a crisis of authority in Uttar Pradesh, which it said was sliding into “medieval lawlessness.”
It wasn’t immediately clear whether India’s entrenched caste system, which continues to cause prejudice and persecution in some rural areas, played a role in the attack. Rathore, the police official, said that the victims and the suspects belonged to different low caste groups.
Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International, pointed out that “violence against women is a global issue,” not limited to developing countries.
But Salbi told CNN that in many Asian and Middle Eastern countries, “the concept of women as property is still a common thing,” meaning they don’t get treated as equal human beings.
CNN’s Harmeet Shah Singh reported from New Delhi, and Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong. CNN’s Sumnima Udas contributed to this report.