By Rahul Vaishnavi
New Delhi: Over 2,500 rapes reported in five years in the national capital and only 190 people convicted: behind the low conviction rate of 7.6 percent is the sorry tale of lengthy trials, desensitised courts and witnesses turning hostile.
Fast track courts and an effective witness protection programme are the way out if the trend has to be reversed, say experts. The outcry over the 16 December gangrape of a 23-year-old, now in a critical condition in a Singapore hospital, has given the added edge to the demand from lawyers and activists who have been fighting long and hard to get heard.
"The legal system in India tires out people. It takes years and years to reach a conclusion and by then, thanks to the brutal cross-examination which leaves permanent scars, the victim in many cases gets fed up," lawyer Rebecca John told IANS.
John said the need of the hour was "skilful determined prosecution and a sensitised court environment".
Lawyer H.S. Phoolka agreed. One main cause for low conviction rates were witnesses turning hostile and an effective witness protection programme was needed urgently, he said.
"We need thorough investigation by the police to build a watertight case against the accused and witness protection programme to protect a witness, which would rule out the possibility of him/her turning hostile," Phoolka told IANS.
Creating "a conducive atmosphere in a rape trial is a must and only then can you increase the conviction rate", he added.
Fast track courts would be another game changer. In nine civil districts of Delhi, for instance, there are 10 fast track courts, said Phoolka. A rape case is transferred to a fast track court only if it has been pending for more than five years.
"We have fast track courts for corruption cases, but human lives are important and the issue of corruption can wait," said John, pushing for such courts for all heinous crimes, including rape and murder.
Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, put forward some more numbers to buttress the view -- only 29 percent of rape cases chargesheeted by police ended in convictions.
"There is an urgent need to fast track such cases," she said.
In lawyer Indira Unninayar's view, rape was a "societal problem" and had to be dealt with at the "root level".
"Boys and girls have to be educated since childhood that rape is a heinous crime. We have to change the mindsets of people as well and stop objectifying women," she said.
Data released by the home ministry says 2,649 rape cases were reported in the last five years in Delhi while only 190 people were convicted. Similarly, 3,045 cases of molestation were reported with only 43 convictions.
Crime cases against women in Delhi have also increased - from 9,853 in 2007 to 11,419 in 2011.
The brutal gang-rape of the young physiotherapist, who was stripped, beaten and then thrown off the moving bus along with her friend led to massive public anger, leading to street violence in the national capital.
In response, the Delhi government announced the setting up of five more fast track courts for rape cases. It also moved to set up of a panel to amend rape laws as well as another panel to probe the gang-rape and look into any lapses by police or any other authority and fix responsibility following the protests.
Too little too late, the experts say.
"People and women's groups have given so many suggestions to make the country, especially Delhi, safer. I am afraid the government has acted a bit late. And even now the measures it has taken are not enough. It has to do much more," John said.
On the issue of death sentence for rapists, the lawyers were unanimous that the deterrent for rape is not the severity of the punishment but its certainty.
"Death sentence has been there for murders but have the murders stopped? We have to understand that demanding death sentence for rapists won't be any good till the time the conviction rates do not increase," John said.
"The emphasis should be on the surety of justice and not just on the severity of punishment," added Ranjana Kumari.