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SRINAGAR: A court on Monday sentenced three Hindu men, including a police officer, to life imprisonment for kidnapping, raping and murdering an eight-year-old Muslim girl in India-held Kashmir, in a case that has exacerbated tensions in the disputed region.

Judge Tejwinder Singh sentenced three other policemen to five years in prison for destroying evidence, prosecutor Santokh Singh told reporters. The judge acquitted another defendant due to insufficient evidence.

An eighth suspect, a minor, will be tried separately by a juvenile court, the prosecutor said.

The girl, who was a member of a nomadic tribe, was grazing her family’s ponies in the forests of the Himalayan foothills when she was kidnapped in January 2018. Her mutilated body was found in the woods a week later.

Prosecution plans to seek death penalty for the convicts

The case sparked protests across occupied Kashmir.

Santokh Singh said prosecutors plan to appeal to a higher court and seek the death penalty for the three defendants who received life sentences.

Thousands of members of a radical Hindu group had demanded the release of the defendants, insisting they were innocent.

The trial was shifted to Pathankot, a town in neighbouring Punjab state, following accusations that local Hindu leaders and politicians were trying to block the investigation.

The prosecution said the girl was raped in a small village temple in Kathua district after having been kept sedated for four days, and was then bludgeoned to death.

The girl’s father, Mohammed Akhtar, said that the men should be “punished speedily, not just convicted”.

“Our family has gone through hell,” he said. “Our hearts are bleeding. These beasts should be hanged.”

India has been shaken by a series of sexual assaults in recent years, including the gang rape and murder of a student on a New Delhi bus in 2012. That attack galvanised a country where widespread violence against women had long been quietly accepted.

While the government has passed a series of laws increasing punishment for rape, it’s rare for more than a few weeks to pass without another brutal sexual assault being reported.

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2019