Indian authorities on Sunday arrested the main suspect in the alleged gang rape of a 16-year-old girl who was later burned to death, the latest in a string of high-profile attacks on women to have shocked India in recent weeks.
The suspect, who police have named as Dhanu Bhuiyan, is among 20 men accused of participating in the alleged incident in the northeastern state of Jharkhand.
The case, which follows two alleged unrelated attacks on an eight-year-old girl and another 16-year-old, comes amid growing public outrage over the treatment of women and children.
In late April, thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest against sexual violence, in some of the largest mass demonstrations held in the country since the rape and murder of a female college student in Delhi in 2012.
In an apparent attempt to ward off further protests, local police in Jharkhand have moved swiftly, detaining 15 people in connection to the latest case, including the local village chief.
Investigators allege Bhuiyan kidnapped the 16-year-old girl, whose identity is protected under Indian law, from her home in rural Jharkhand Thursday night, while her family attended a wedding. He then took her to a nearby forest and where she was gang raped by Bhuiyan and numerous others.
But that was far from the end of her ordeal. Seeking justice, her family are alleged to have approached the village council on Friday.
The village council ordered the accused men to do 100 situps and imposed a fine of 50,000 rupees ($750).
The men were so enraged by the penalty, they assaulted the victim’s parents and set their house on fire with the help of friends, killing the girl who was inside at the time, said Ashok Ram, the officer in charge of the local police station.
Authorities are now waiting for a medical board to conduct an autopsy of the girl’s body, before proceeding with the investigation.
In rural villages across India, village councils have traditionally helped to govern and manage local disputes. But in remote areas, where police officers and government agencies are spread thin, they also intervene on issues of rape, marriage and honor killings.
The councils, which are typically made up of older male leaders, have been denounced by critics as kangaroo courts that help perpetuate patriarchal values.
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.
Around 100 sexual assaults are reported to police in India every day, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. There were nearly 39,000 alleged attacks in 2016, an increase of 12% on the previous year.
String of rapes
The string of brutal attacks on women has forced the issue of sexual violence back onto India’s national agenda, provoking widespread condemnation both at home and overseas.
In January, a string of five alleged rapes, mostly of minors, within five days in the northern Indian state of Haryana provoked widespread condemnation.
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.
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.
CNN’s Sugam Pokharel reported from New Delhi and CNN’s Chandrika Narayan reported and wrote from Atlanta.