In a strong message to perpetrators of crimes against woman, a Haryana court awarded death penalty to seven rapists on a day the Rajya Sabha finally debated and passed the amendments to Juvenile Justice Bill to allow trial of juvenile offenders between the age of 16 to 18. The amended law will allow the authorities to keep juvenile offenders in correctional homes or jail for a longer period than current provision of three years for committing heinous crimes including rape, acid attack, kidnapping and murder.
It was a historic occasion as the country’s criminal justice system was struggling to cope with the rising number of rapes and other heinous crimes committed by young juveniles that were let off due to offenders’ age being less than 18 years, a statutory requirement for putting accused on trial in the country.
Under the present system, any offender below the age of 18 years, if found guilty, can only be sent to a correctional home for a maximum period of three years.
Passage of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2015 by voice vote in the Rajya Sabha at the fag end of otherwise washed out winter session demonstrates the power of popular sentiment as all but one party supported its passage late on Tuesday evening.
CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury and his party members in the Rajya Sabha walked out of the upper house in protest when other parties did not agree to their demand for sending the bill to a select committee of the house.
Sitaram Yechury voiced his concerns over hurriedly passing the bill as in future there may be a requirement to further reduce the age of juveniles for trials. But his demand was opposed by Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brian and others saying that the bill was properly discussed.
Presence of Badri Nath Singh and Asha Devi, parents of the 23 year old physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh who was brutally raped and fatally assaulted in Delhi on the night of 16 December 2012, in the public gallery of the Rajya Sabha catalysed the political parties to bury their differences and clear the law to deal with juvenile offenders accused of committing such horrendous crimes.
Obviously no political party wanted to be seen stalling the passage of the bill after the massive public uproar created by the release of the juvenile offender in the Nirbhaya case this Sunday after spending 3 years in a correctional home.
Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi also pointed out to the fact when she said ‘remember the nation is watching us’ while replying to the queries by Rajya Sabha members.
The juvenile’s release was legally challenged by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy at Delhi High Court and later by Delhi Commission for Women before Supreme Court but the courts refused to stall his release citing the gaps in existing legal provisions despite a huge public outcry against his release.
The development sharply divided the society but eventually created enough pressure on political parties to urgently pass the bill in the ongoing winter session itself.
However, the bill once approved by the President will only cover future crimes by juvenile offenders as India’s constitution does not permit retrospective amendments in the country’s criminal laws by the parliament.
The amended law will neither cover the juvenile offender in Nirbhaya case nor in Haryana’s Rohtak gang rape and murder case in which seven accused persons were convicted and awarded death penalty for brutally raping and murdering a mentally challenged 28 year old Nepalese woman in February this year.
Urging the Rajya Sabha members to support the bill, Maneka Gandhi said, “We may not be able to do anything about the juvenile convict in the Nirbhaya case but we can deter many other boys from doing so.”
Sharing the data about rising crimes by the juvenile offenders she said more than 1000 juveniles have been arrested in Delhi alone this year. She said in recent times some of the most horrendous crimes were committed by juveniles.
“On 1st December, 2015, police arrested two juveniles on charges of rape and murder of a 25-year-old woman. After they killed her, both had sex with the corpse. After that, they dumped her in a forest area. What should we do with this child? Is it a child-like mind? Should we not protect the victim?” asked the visibly emotional women and child development minister who was very keen to garner the support of the upper house where her party doesn’t enjoy the majority.
She said the Justice Board has experts and psychologists who will first decide whether the crime committed has been “child-like” or was it committed in an “adult frame of mind”.
If the JJ board deems fit that any juvenile offender is fit for a trial then the offender will be tried by a children court that has jurisdiction to try such offences.
The amended law also doesn’t allow trial of a juvenile with other adult accused persons.
Gandhi said the juveniles will still have the power to appeal even if a court decides that they will go to an adult jail.
“If juvenile is sent to jail, they will be sent to a borstal until they are 21 years old, after which there will be a review,” she said making it clear that they will still not be spending time with hardened criminals.
She clarified that the process has been designed in such manner to let any offenders slip but not punish an innocent person.
There is another layer of protection for juvenile offenders. Under the amended law, no juvenile can be awarded death penalty or life imprisonment without the possibility of release.
However, the maximum period for keeping a juvenile offender in a rehabilitation centre or in jail after attaining the age of 21 years has not been spelt out.
Gandhi also informed the house that the juvenile police exists in the country by law and there is a designated child police officer in every police station of the country.
Rajya Sabha was also informed that centre and states have been building One-Stop-Centres to take care of juveniles and women as well. Gandhi said 10 such centres had already been built and were working well. She also expressed hope that in next few years there would be a one stop centre in all 660 districts of the country.
While responding to the queries on the Rajya Sabha members on poor state of juvenile care system in the country, the minister listed out the measures taken by the government. She informed the Rajya Sabha that financial norms under the scheme to strengthen the JJ boards and homes had been revised effective April last year.
Child maintenance grant has been increased from Rs. 750 to Rs. 2,000 per child per month. Financial norms for constructing and maintaining a new correctional home for 50 children has been upwardly revised from Rs. 77 lacs to Rs. 1.90 crores.
Financial support for a special unit of ten children for children with special needs has been revised from Rs. 4.2 lakhs to Rs. 10.4 lakhs.
Gandhi informed the house that the Nirbhaya Trust has agreed to have a victim compensation of Rs. 200 crores and to provide Rs. 250 crores for setting up special investigation units. The government will also support establishment of One-Stop-Centres and women’s helpline in all the States.
The government also clarified that reduction of juvenile offender’s age from 18 to 16 would not flout the UN treaty on the Rights of Child which was ratified by the country.
Maneka Gandhi informed the upper house that under the treaty every single nation had the ability to provide for what they saw as a ‘lakshman rekha’ for their children. She said seven of USA’s states have reduced it to 9, France has got 12, several other countries have got the age of 14-16 for trying juvenile offenders.
Parents of Nirbhaya case victim, who actively campaigned for lowering the age of juveniles, and were present in the public gallery of Rajya Sabha to observe the proceedings also expressed satisfaction over passage of the bill by the Rajya Sabha.