(UPDATED with comments from Save the Children)
By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, May 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian police have arrested one man and are looking for four other suspects after two teenage girls were gang-raped and then hanged from a tree in a village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, police said on Thursday.
The two cousins, who were from a low-caste Dalit community and aged 14 and 15, went missing from their village home in Uttar Pradesh's Budaun district when they went out to go to the toilet on Tuesday evening.
The following morning, villagers found the bodies of the two teenagers hanging from a mango tree in a nearby orchard.
"We have registered a case under various sections, including that of rape, and one of the accused has been taken into custody. There were five people involved, one has been arrested and we are looking for the others," Budaun's Superintendent of Police Man Singh Chouhan told reporters.
Chouhan said a post-mortem confirmed the two minors were raped and died from the hanging. DNA samples have been also been taken to help identity the perpetrators, he added.
The victim's families say the girls were gang-raped and then hanged by five men from the village. They allege that local police were shielding the attackers as they refused to take action when the girls were first reported missing.
It was only after angry villagers found the hanging corpses and took the bodies to a nearby highway and blocked it in protest, say the families, that police registered a case of rape and murder.
A case of conspiracy has also been registered against two constables, said Chouhan, adding that they had also been suspended.
Sex crimes against young girls and women are widespread in India, say activists, adding that females from poor, marginalised, low-caste communities are often the victims.
Charity Save the Children Thursday demanded urgent action be taken by Indian authorities to find and bring to trial all suspects in the case, and called for rising violence against children to be recognized as a priority for the new central government.
“This is a horrific incident and part of an alarming trend of brutal violence against women, particularly against those from marginalised communities. Urgent, concerted action needs to be taken to end it,” Shireen Vakil Miller, Advocacy Director of Save the Children, India said in a statement. “It is necessary that maximum punishment be meted out...A clear message needs to be sent to put an end to such gruesome crimes against girls.”
A report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights in April last year said 48,338 child rape cases were recorded in India from 2001 to 2011, and the annual number of reported cases had risen more than fourfold - 336 percent - over that period.
Women's rights experts and lawyers say rape victims also have to endure harsh treatment from an archaic, poorly funded and insensitive criminal justice system.
Police often try to dissuade victims from complaining and suggest a "compromise" between the victim and the perpetrator, largely because of their insensitivity to sex crimes, but also because police officials are rarely held accountable.
Public outrage over the fatal gang rape of a woman in New Delhi in December 2012 pushed the government into passing a tougher new law to punish sex crimes. This includes sentences of up to two years' jail for police and hospital authorities if they fail to register a complaint or treat a victim. (Editing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Ron Popeski)