A day ahead of the sentencing in the Mumbai Shakti Mills compound gang rape case, legal experts and activists expressed a fear that adding the new charge under Section 376 (E) of the Indian Penal Code under the amended anti-rape law could offer no reform.

Under 376 (E), a repeat offender can face the death sentence. This, say activists, could set a bad precedent by nullifying the hope for the offender to improve himself.

Majlis founder Flavia Agnes says the term “repeat offenders” should be applied only to those who have committed a second rape after completing their sentence for the first offence. “The 20-year-olds, in this case, were not “hardened criminals” and should not be treated like terrorists,” she said.

It is this “retributive nature” of the law that has got activists worried.

Says Madhu Mehra who heads Partners for Law in Development, a legal resource group for social justice and equality for women: “While a lot has been achieved under the new law, one cannot envisage a possibility of justice. A sentence should be based on the possibility of reform and should not entirely be punitive.”

Most lawyers who The Hindu spoke to said the law was too harsh and seeking the death penalty in this case would be stretching it too far. “Let’s not condemn the death penalty alone.Spending the whole life in jail without the possibility of reform is also very extreme. The law has also taken away the judge’s discretion under extra-ordinary circumstances, to reduce the quantum of punishment,” says Ms. Mehra.

Criminal lawyer Rebecca John said merely adding new sections would not help the cause. She called for a safe atmosphere for rape survivors. “They should be able to testify in a space which is free of fear, slander, insinuations and vilification.”

Correction and clarification

>>The last paragraph of this article had a quotation attributed to criminal lawyer Rebecca Vaz. It should have been Rebecca John.

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