Police arrested a third suspect Saturday in the gang rape and slaying of two teenage cousins found hanging from a tree in northern India, as a top state official said he was recommending a federal investigation into a case that has triggered national outrage.
The three suspects detained in the attack in Uttar Pradesh state are cousins in their 20s from an extended family, and they face murder and rape charges, crimes punishable by the death penalty, said police officer N. Malik. Two other suspects from the same village are also being sought, he said.
Facing growing criticism for a series of rapes, authorities in Uttar Pradesh, which has a long-standing reputation for lawlessness, also arrested two police officers and fired two others Friday for failing to investigate when the father of one of the teenagers reported the girls missing earlier in the week.
India has a long history of tolerance for sexual violence. But the gang rape and killing of the 14- and 15-year-old girls — which was followed by TV footage showing their corpses swaying as they hung from a mango tree — caused outrage across the nation. The father who reported the girls missing, Sohan Lal, has demanded a federal investigation.
"I don't expect justice from the state government as state police officers shielded the suspects," said Lal, a poor farm labourer who refused to accept a payment for 500,000 rupees ($8,500) offered by the state government as financial help. He told reporters Saturday that he would accept no financial assistance until the Central Bureau of Investigation, India's FBI, takes over the case.
Such government payments are common in India when poor families face high-profile calamities, and Lal's unusual refusal — particularly for a man living in desperate poverty — was likely to focus attention on his demands for a federal investigation.
With pressure mounting on the state government to act swiftly, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said he was recommending to the federal government a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Under Indian law, a state can only make a recommendation, and it is then up to the federal government to ask the CBI to investigate.
Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the opposition Congress party, visited the families of the two girls on Saturday and endorsed the demand for a federal investigation.
"The state has a jungle rule," said Rita Bahugana, another Congress party leader.
Dozens of members of the All India Democratic Women's Association marched Saturday through the streets of New Delhi, India's capital, demanding the immediate arrest of the two fugitive suspects and justice for the victims. "Enough is enough. Women will not tolerate such atrocities any longer," the protesters chanted, asking state authorities to take crimes against women seriously.
Uttar Pradesh officials initially appeared caught off guard by the reaction to the attack on the two girls, and Yadav on Friday mocked journalists for asking about it.
"You're not facing any danger, are you?" he said in Lucknow, the state capital. "Then why are you worried? What's it to you?"
Ashish Gupta, a state inspector-general of police, pointed out to journalists that 10 rapes are reported every day in Uttar Pradesh, which has 200 million people and is India's most populous state. Gupta said 60 per cent of such crimes happen when women go into the fields because their homes have no toilets.
The girls in the latest incident were attacked in the tiny village of Katra, about 300 kilometres (180 miles) from Lucknow. They disappeared Tuesday night after going into fields near their home to relieve themselves.
Official statistics say about 25,000 rapes are committed every year in India, a nation of 1.2 billion people. Activists, though, say that number is just a tiny percentage of the actual number, since victims are often pressed by family or police to stay quiet about sexual assaults.