New Delhi: Lok Sabha today passed a bill which provides for natural life term or even death for repeat offenders of rape and other stringent punishment for various offences like stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks.
The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013, brought against the backdrop of the country-wide outrage over Delhi gangrape, also makes it clear that the age of consent for sex would be 18 years, which was a sticking point with political parties.
"I wish to state that we are enacting the strict law to act as a deterrent," Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said, replying to a nearly six-hour debate on the Bill.
The Bill seeks to replace an Ordinance promulgated on 3 February, which will expire on 4 April. It seeks to amend the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Indian Evidence Act and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.
The Bill was passed after all amendments moved by opposition and one by UPA constituent NCP for a life-term for perpetrators of acid attacks were defeated.
"Time has come to send out a loud, clear and deterrent signal that the society will not tolerate such errant behaviour," Shinde said, underlining that the Bill was being brought to plug loopholes in the law.
With an aim of providing a strong deterrent against rapes and gangrapes, the Bill states that an offender can be sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than 20 years, but which may extend to life, meaning imprisonment for the remainder of that person's natural life and with a fine.
It has provisions for handing out death sentence to offenders who may have been convicted earlier for rape.
The Bill, for the first time, defines stalking and voyeurism as non-bailable offences if repeated for a second time. Perpetrators of acid attack will attract a 10-year jail term.
Shinde said the Bill has provisions for allowing rape victims and witnesses to use the services of interpreters or special educators for recording of statement.
He also agreed with suggestions of some members to post lady officers at every police station. He said efforts were being made to induct more women in the police force under the police modernisation programme.
Moving the Bill for consideration, Shinde sought support of all parties, saying "Let us honour the braveheart", referring to the 23-year-old Delhi gangrape victim .
The Bill, for the first time, defines acid attack as a crime and also grants a victim the right to self-defence. It also has provisions for awarding a minimum 10-year jail term for perpetrators of the act.
B Mahtab (BJD) had moved an amendment to provide for life term for perpetrators of acid attacks. He pressed for division of votes, giving the government some anxious moments as Shinde, who is also Leader of the House, was seen reaching out to the Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj, apparently to ask her about the BJP's stand. Later, the amendments were defeated 105-62.
The government was again on tenterhooks when Tathagat Satpathy (BJD) pressed for division on a clause dealing with stalking, which he wanted to be made a non-bailable offence even in the first instance.
Swaraj supported him citing the case of former Haryana Minister Gopal Kanda, who is accused of abetting the suicide of an employee in his firm and her mother by stalking.
Shinde said the decision to keep the offence bailable in the first instance was taken by consensus at an all-party meeting.
Confusion ensued as Sathpathy pressed for division. He was agitated as the Speaker moved on to the next clause and was about to stage a walkout but was prevented by Gurudas Dasgupta (CPI) and Mahtab.
Shinde said the new sections to prevent stalking and voyeurism were introduced following a strong demand from women's organisations.
"For the first time we are making these a punishable offence...so, we have made it bailable for the first instance. We will not spare him if he repeats the offence," he said.
On making the age of consent for sex 16 years, he said the demand was made by NGOs and a number of advocates. BJP, SP and some others demanded that the age of consent for sex be 18 years and not 16 as envisaged in the ordinance. They contended that since the age of marriage is 18 years, the age of consent should be the same.
The amendments seeks to define and prescribe punishment for the offences of stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment. The Bill also seeks to widen the definition of rape, broaden the ambit of aggravated rape and enhance the punishment for such crimes.
The Bill also provides that all hospitals shall immediately provide first aid and/or medical treatment free of cost to the victims of acid attack or rape, and failure to do so will attract punishment.
It also has provisions for a minimum imprisonment of seven years which may extend to imprisonment for life and a fine for offender who is a police officer, a public servant, a member of the armed forces or management or the staff of a hospital.
The Bill also seeks to amend the Indian Evidence Act to allow a rape victim, if she is temporarily or permanently mentally or physically disabled, to record her statement before a Judicial Magistrate with the assistance of an interpreter or a special educator. It also has provisions to videograph the proceedings.