Mahmood Farooqui acquitted of rape: India urgently needs a Sex Offenders Registry to curb crimes against women

By Rashme Sehgal

The release of filmmaker Mahmood Farooqui from Tihar jail following the Delhi High Court's acquittal of rape charges brings to the fore the whole issue of crime which is sexual in nature.

Farooqui was charged with rape by a US-based complainant following which the sessions court had sentenced him to a seven-year term in prison. The verdict was subsequently overturned by the high court which gave him the benefit of doubt and ordered his release as he happens to be cooling his heels in Tihar jail for the last few months.

Delhi High Court acquits Mahmood Farooqui. Getty Images

The key question is if we had a Sexual Offenders Registry (SOR) in place, would Farooqui’s name, address and other details been put there following his sentence by the sessions court and would his name then been deleted following his acquittal?

Given the current mood in the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the chances are that if such a bill was in place, then Farooqui’s name would definitely have been placed on such a list. When the 38-year-old Sunil Rastogi was arrested earlier this year for raping and sexually assaulting minors, he confessed to the cops that he had assaulted around 500 girls in the states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Rastogi was arrested, jailed and then released only to repeat this crime. Union minister Maneka Gandhi lamented that if an SOR was in place, many of Rastogi’s crime could have been prevented.

Gandhi pointed out that the listing of names of sexual offenders and placing it in the public domain would definitely act as a deterrent. The move for an SOR is a must given the rising graph of crimes which are sexual in nature. The details of such a bill are being worked out by the Ministry of Home Affairs which informed the Supreme Court about the pressing need for such a registry.

Although within the echelons of power, a debate is raging with one faction of bureaucrats insisting that such public shaming is only going to have a negative impact.

The draft guidelines are under preparation and will include rape, voyeurism, stalking and aggravated sexual assault. Surprisingly, there is a move within the ministry to include the public listing of juveniles below and above the age of 18 years of age. The guidelines are still to be put in the public domain for wider consultation.

Sunita Krishnan, who runs the NGO Prajwala which claims it has rescued and rehabilitated more than 10,000 rape victims is happy with this move. She believes only "the public naming and shaming of offenders" will stop this sharp increase in rape.

Krishnan further believed this will act as a deterrent because rapists are often repeat offenders as can be seen by the 200 videos she has received from rape victims which she then forwarded to the Supreme Court. From the videos, she said one thing that what is apparent is that this is not the offender’s first rape due to the ease with which the man goes about committing the crime.

She is in agreement that the names should be listed only after the conviction takes place by the highest court. Krishnan said, "Even if there is only one percent conviction and the names of the convicted are placed in the public domain, this will act as a deterrent. Once the name is on the list, it will end the sense of impunity that exists today."

Earlier this month, Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi also urged the government to push for a registry of sexual offenders. Satyarthi said this will be the first effective step towards safeguarding children in the society. "Name and shame them. Sexual offenders should not be accepted as employees anywhere," he said while addressing students in Bengaluru.

But those who are working in the field of juvenile delinquents and also with sexual offenders do not agree. Rajesh Kumar, who heads the Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses and is working with sexual offenders both in Tihar Jail and at his own centre in central Delhi, pointed out, "In more than 90 percent of the cases, the conviction takes place after ten years and more, then how can you publicise their names? We can put up their names only after conviction by a higher court and that will take many years."

Kumar said, "I would like to cite the example of taxi drivers who openly watch porn sites while waiting for customers outside the Indira Gandhi International Terminus (in Delhi). They spend hours doing so till they get a pickup. What does all this access lead up to? Why has the government not blocked these porn sites? Someone is making a lot of money from them. There are so many linked issues to ensure proper safety for women and the government needs to implement these."

Advocate Anant Asthana who works with juveniles said the need of the hour is an effective implementation of the criminal justice system. "Victims of sexual crimes need much better protection, each case needs to be investigated efficiently and in a time bound manner and all police stations need to be interlinked to ensure better monitoring as this will make verification much easier and will also help in creating data banks. But to put this in the public domain will set a dangerous precedent because how will the system ensure that innocent people are not getting victimised," said Asthana.

Enakshi Ganguly, the co-director of HAQ Centre for Child Rights, who assists rape survivors by helping them in legal proceedings is against providing 'quick fix' solutions to complex issues.

"Rather we need to come up with well thought out solutions to these pressing challenges. We have enough laws in place today. What we need is a much better implementation of these laws," she said.

"The more penal and punitive our laws become, it becomes that much more difficult for the judge to take a stand. Sexual crimes often take place within families. Are we then going to see whole families stigmatised for life by going public?" Ganguly asked.

Several activists are of the view that the stricter rape laws have created a situation where rapists prefer to murder a victim after rape which was not the case earlier. This deadly cocktail of rape being followed by murder is being attributed directly to the tougher rape laws introduced in 2013 to curb sexual violence.

Kumar pointed out,"For boys who commit these crimes, there is little difference between living on the streets or spending time in a jail. Murdering the girl (who they raped) means they have done away with the key witness which they believe will help them in a law court ."

"Sexual offences carry convictions of seven years while murder sentences are longer but this does not concern these offenders," he said.

Last year, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju informed the Rajya Sabha that draft guidelines on the proposal to set up an SOR were under preparation in consultation with relevant ministries.

The question that has been posed to him is to clarify where SORs have helped curb sex crimes. Sunita Krishnan said, "SORs have worked in many countries which is why they are being sustained both in European countries and in the US."

But there are others who believe such a registry has not proved an effective deterrent. SOR laws required convicted offenders to periodically check in with the cops to inform them about their place of residence and where they are working. Some countries do not allow law enforcement agencies to go public with these details but countries like the US and South Korea allow the public access to these sites. Gandhi wants a similar system to be adopted in India.

But experts point out that maintaining SORs has not resulted in a reduction is sex crimes. Rather it has led to the hardening of the attitude of such offenders who believe they can continue with this behaviour believing criminal behaviour is more attractive when living under this kind of notification.