Parliament approved on Tuesday a landmark bill that will allow trial of offenders aged 16-18 as adults in heinous crimes like rape and murder, three years after the brutal sexual assault on a student in Delhi triggered demands for harsher punishment to young offenders.
Under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), crimes such as rape, murder, dacoity and acid attack which can invite jail terms of seven years or more are defined as “heinous crimes”.
The amended act, however, will have no bearing on the juvenile convict in the December 16, 2012 case, whose release from a correctional home last week reignited demands for stringent laws to keep such offenders behind bars for a longer period.
Under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014, young offenders tried as adults can face a maximum of seven-year jail term but will not be awarded life sentence or death penalty.
However, the bill also stipulates thatonlytheJuvenileJusticeBoard (JJB) will determine if the offender should be tried as an adult.
The parents of the victim – who had died a few days after the assault by six men on a moving bus – were present in the Upper House when lawmakers cut across party lines to make emotional appeals in support of the bill’s passage. Currently, a juvenile accused (under 18 years) is tried by Juvenile Justice Board and if convicted, sent to a reform home for a maximum of 3 years — as in the case of the recently-released 16/12 gang rape convict
“Justice might have eluded my daughter but I am happy that with this law, the lives of several other daughters of this country would be saved,” said Asha Devi, the mother of the 23-year-old victim.
The youngster convicted in the gang rape and murder was under 18 at the time of the crime and was tried by the JJB, which had handed him a three-year term at a correctional facility.
The other five convicts were awarded death sentences by the trial court and later upheld by the high court. One of the convicts was found dead in prison later.
CPM members opposed to lowering of the age limit walked out of the house before the bill was put to voice vote.
With pressure mounting to pass the bill, the government managed to secure the support of majority of the opposition parties the including the Congress, Trinamool, SP and BSP in the Rajya Sabha where the ruling NDA is in minority. The Lok Sabha had passed the bill earlier.
Except for CPI (M), NCP and DMK, all other parties decided against referring the bill to the Rajya Sabha select committee for further consideration and passed it with voice vote.
Moving the bill, women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi made a passionate appeal for its passage saying the legislation was “compassionate” and comprehensive in nature.
Gandhi said that unlike the common perception, not all 16-year-old involved in heinous crime would be treated as adult.
“It’s a nuanced bill. The Juvenile Justice Board would decide if a juvenile has committed a crime with a child-like mentality or in a planned way. Only in the latter case, the JJ Board decides the juvenile will be sent to jail,” she added.
As emotions ran high, four members including the WCD minister even named the victim, which is legally not permissible under Indian law.
Derek O’Brien of Trinamool said: “I have a 20-year-old daughter. God forbid, if December 16 case happened with her... How would I, so-called educated and law-abiding citizen, have reacted under the circumstances... Would I use criminal justice system, would I hire a criminal lawyer for bigger punishment to the perpetrator... Would I buy a gun and shoot the person... I would have probably taken out a gun and shot the perpetrator.”
He, however, clarified that he was talking as a father while urging fellow-MPs to support the bill.
The bill will be notified as a law once the President gives his consent.