Women’s organisations and child rights activists cross swords over the issue

Members of the All India Mahila Sanskritik Sangathan (AIMSS) staged a demonstration in the city on Tuesday to highlight their demands, which included meting out “exemplary punishment” to juveniles (those below 18 years of age) involved in heinous crimes, such as rape and murder , by amending the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000.

The protest comes in the wake of an order passed by the Juvenile Justice Board in New Delhi on August 31 directing a 17-year-old convict in the gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student to undergo three years, the maximum tenure prescribed under the JJ Act, in a correctional home. The protestors called for more stringent punishment to the offender.

Other demands included stopping sex education in schools, banning obscenity on television, cinema and Internet, and prohibiting the sale of liquor.

The protest was supported by the All India Democratic Students Organisation and All India Democratic Youth Organisation.

T. Hilda Mary, State Committee member of AIMSS, told The Hindu that it was unfair to order a juvenile to be lodged in a correctional home for petty crimes such as theft as well as heinous crimes such as rape and murder. “Ordering a rape convict to spend just three years in a correctional home is not going to deter others from committing crimes against women,” she observed.

But S. Syed Ahmed, former chairman of Child Welfare Committee, a statutory body, said the aim of the Juvenile Justice Board is not to punish but reform offenders. “I can understand the agony and anguish of women victims of rape. At the same time, I expect them to understand the circumstances that lead to juveniles committing heinous crimes,” he said.

According to him, juvenile offenders undergo severe mental trauma owing to their upbringing in crime-prone localities. Constant exposure to criminal activities turns them into criminals. Providing psychological counselling , and not punishing them, will help in their transformation.

“T here is nothing wrong with the Juvenile Justice Act. If at all something has to be changed, it is the functioning of the correctional homes run by the government. At present, these homes are places where even petty offenders are groomed to become hardcore criminals. The government must and change this situation,” he suggested.

He also pointed out that there was no concrete data to prove that stiff punishment resulted in the lowering of the crime rate anywhere in the world . “Crimes occur even in nations such as Saudi Arabia which follow the policy of an eye- for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth. Therefore, what is required is a change in our outlook and not stringent punishment,”he added.

R. Alagumani, a lawyer practising at the Madras High Court Bench here, wondered why there was such a hue and cry over amending the Juvenile Justice Act when it had been used time and again in the last 12 years to get many murder convicts released from jail even after their conviction had been confirmed at the level of the Supreme Court.

In July, 2010, a 26-year-old youth, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by a Tirunelveli sessions court as well as the High Court in a triple murder case, was ordered to be released by the High Court Bench after it was proved through a habeas corpus petition that he was only 17 years, 7 months and 8 days old on March 3, 2001, the day when he murdered three people.

The High Court had held that the youngster’s failure to prove his age at the time of trial and get himself exempted from facing trial could not be reasons to deny him the benefit of the JJ Act. In the same year, three other individuals from Tuticorin were also ordered to be released on the same ground, despite their conviction in a murder case.

“The list is endless. The JJ Act should not be understood as a piece of legislation that protects men alone. It applies equally to women also. Before the year 2000, boys aged below 16 years were provided protection under the Act. The age for boys was raised to 18 after deep deliberation. Therefore, in my view, there is no need to tinker with the enactment,” he said.

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