Ordinance provides for death penalty, life term till death in rarest of rare cases

Three weeks ahead of the budget session of Parliament, the Union Cabinet, at a special meeting on Friday evening, cleared an ordinance to ensure that those who commit crimes against women face far tougher sentences than those currently on the statute book.

The ordinance will become law once the President signs it, after which it will be promulgated. However, the ordinance will have to be passed by Parliament within six months.

The new law, government sources said, is likely to include the death penalty — or imprisonment for the rest of the perpetrator’s natural life — in the rarest of rare cases, enhancing the seven-year sentence for those convicted of rape to 20 years, criminalising public sexual harassment ranging from cat calls to groping, more stringent punishment in specific cases of stalking, and acid attacks.

The word “rape” has been replaced by the expression “sexual assault”.

The Union government’s decision comes in the wake of the horrific sexual assault of a 23-year-old paramedical student that culminated in her death here last month, and the nationwide outrage that followed it.

It also comes nine days after the Justice Verma committee, which had been asked to suggest how to tighten the law for crimes against women, submitted its report. The ordinance incorporates some of the panel’s suggestions.

Within the government, there had been a debate on whether to issue an ordinance or wait for Parliament, and then send the pending anti-rape bill, incorporating the Verma panel’s recommendations, to a Standing Committee for a more detailed examination. But, in the end, the government, sources said, decided it wanted to send a message that it was committed not just to acting on its promise to strengthen the anti-rape law, but also to do it swiftly to demonstrate its sincerity in enhancing security for women.

Indeed, at the Congress’s recent chintan shivir in Jaipur, one of the five subjects that was discussed in detail was on how to create an environment in which women felt secure.

The sense of urgency, one minister said, was also bolstered by the fact that the Verma panel had submitted its report within a record 29 days. Indeed, barring the Union Home Minister and the law minister, other cabinet ministers saw the ordinance only on Friday evening.

Friday’s cabinet meeting was preceded by a meeting of the Congress Core Group, which includes party president Sonia Gandhi, at which the Verma panel’s recommendations, too, were discussed.

The Verma panel did not recommend the death penalty even in the rarest of rare cases, largely because women’s groups opposed it, saying that it might encourage rapists to kill their victims.

But though the committee had wanted marital rape to be recognized as a crime, and had suggested that sexual crimes by members of the armed forces should be tried under ordinary criminal law (i.e., a review of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act), neither finds a place in the ordinance.



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