Hollow Vengeance

Why four hangings won't change India's horrific culture of rape and torture.

Death penalty for sexual assault is reportedly a celebrated position in India right now. On Friday, in a case that has captured both national and international attention, a judge sentenced four men to execution for the December 2012 rape and murder of a student in Delhi. The announcement was met with cheers by hundreds of people gathered outside the court.

Considering research showing that one in four Indian men has committed sexual violence at some point in their lives, is India serious about pursuing bloody barters in still more cases? The answer is unclear, but the eye-for-an-eye sentiment that has permeated public discussion around the recently concluded case has allowed a great wrong to be addressed inadequately and perhaps unjustly. Indeed, it is unquestionable that at least three crucial learning moments are slipping through India's fingers.

First, the public, eager to focus gory details about this particular rape and the drama of the court proceedings that followed, are losing the opportunity to discuss the case as illustrative of the lived realities of women and girls across the country. Other recent cases, even ones equally as egregious, have not received the same sort of national attention. Not the 16-year-old who sought assistance from her teachers to report repeated rapes by her high-profile father in Delhi's satellite town of Gurgaon, nor the woman whose charred remains suggested she was burned alive after a possible rape in Sirsa, in Delhi's neighboring state of Haryana. Fueled by calls for violent retribution and an additional clamor surrounding whether India has become dangerous for female tourists -- a real, but not primary, concern -- the violent rape in Delhi has been rendered into a unique spectacle rather than being used as an impetus for discussions at dinner tables, in schools, in dining halls, and in community spaces about the need for zero tolerance of violence.

The loud responses have also diminished the voices of those at the helm of the gender justice movement in India -- people who were paying attention to sexual violence and other human rights violations long before this case. There have been vociferous calls for the death penalty, chemical castration, and some gleeful discussions about other savage punishments for those who commit sexual crimes. None of these penalties would provide a just, sustainable, or replicable solution, and some of them reinforce rape myths. (Castration, for instance, suggests that rape is all about sex.) Gender justice advocates have worked to dispel such myths and emphasize the need for more humane criminal penalties, but they have yet to receive the careful ear that they deserve.

Second, and relatedly, India is missing the opportunity to take a stand against custodial torture and to further define the contours of the amorphous rule of law. Originally, there were five adults accused in the case (in addition to one juvenile). Their lawyers reported that the accused were beaten, tortured, and sexually assaulted while in jail. The coverage of these reports was scant, and the defense lawyers were deemed shameless for worrying about the treatment of the accused. In March 2013, one of the five was found dead in his jail cell, hanging -- some reports said -- by his own clothes, having used his disabled hand to noose himself, a couple of feet higher than his frame, while cellmates were present.

The alleged rape of the now-convicted rapists, and a potential murder, should also be deep public concerns. The reports of mistreatment merited more attention and pause during the recent trial and continue to do so now. For, quite simply, to be against rape and violence should mean precisely that.

While nongovernmental estimates are often higher, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, out of the total number of prisoners who died in Indian jails during 2011, 1,244 were natural deaths and 88 were due to unnatural causes, 68 of those being suicides. Civil society groups consistently document the torture and other degrading treatment of Indian prisoners, and it is not unreasonable to conclude that this, too, leads to custodial deaths. Recently referring to the "public secret" that is torture, senior New Delhi lawyer Nitya Ramakrishnan, recounted to the Indian daily the Hindu what any Bollywood filmgoer accepts as unexceptional: "In Hindi movies, unless the cop hits the suspect, he doesn't talk. [Torture] is projected as a successful interrogation technique."

Among other possible effects, more robust investigation and dialogue about torture during the Delhi rape case could have helped advance the Prevention of Torture Bill, which has been stalled since 2010 and, if passed, would allow India to ratify the U.N. Convention Against Torture (CAT). Elusive and abstract as they might seem, international instruments do set clear social benchmarks. Ratifying CAT would assist in beginning to mainstream the idea that freedom from torture is a non-derogable human right -- rather than dependent on the proclivities of individual officers. But far from moving the conversation toward increased accountability, reactions to the Delhi rape simply labeled "alleged" as a mere formality, innocent until proven guilty as an optional guideline.

The third missed opportunity pertains to the law and its symbiotic relationship with society. Recognizing that violence against women takes place in various contexts, and in the face of many adversities, the Justice Verma Committee -- constituted days after the December assault and murder to propose revisions to India's rape laws -- made excellent, contextual recommendations to enhance safety and justice for women. This included reforms around responses to rape in police custody, rape in conflict zones, and rape in bedrooms. (India has yet to outlaw marital rape.) The committee also ruled against the death penalty as punishment for rape. However, the committee's extensive report that could have ushered in systemic changes was largely ignored, short-circuited by a lackluster ordinance signed by President Pranab Mukherjee on Feb. 3. Additionally, the government has not offered sufficient support for sexual violence prevention or bystander intervention resources.

On the heels of a tragedy, there was a chance, with media coverage, a high-profile trial, and the Justice Verma Committee report, to begin a national dialogue about sorely needed cultural change in addressing violence against both women and those accused of crimes. Instead, in a country where court proceedings and policy decisions notoriously move at a snail's pace, both the Delhi rape case and related legal reforms were rushed to conclusion. The expedience hasn't rendered complete justice to the victim or her family, to women or their advocates, and perhaps not even to the defendants. The cheers for the death sentences handed out on Friday were simply reminders of these failures.



Public Editing Putin

Never was so much B.S. presented to so many people in such a short text.

Vladimir Putin wants Americans to give peace a chance.

Bequeathed prime op-ed real estate in Thursday's New York Times, the Russian president has issued a "plea for caution" about the situation in Syria. Acknowledging the "insufficient communication between our societies," Putin makes an appeal to the Russian-American alliance against the Nazis during World War II to suggest that the two countries can work together to solve international problems. For a leader who has inundated his country with virulent anti-American and anti-Western propaganda, such a plea to historic common interest fall flat in a piece chock full of hypocrisies, deceptions, and outright lies. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never was so much bullshit presented to so many people in such a short text.

According to Putin, any American involvement in the Syrian conflict, and in particular military strikes, would violate the sanctity of international law. Putin also writes that the conflict is being "fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition." He would have his American audience believe that Russia is just a disinterested observer in the Syrian mess, writing, "We are not protecting the Syrian government." This is rich coming from a man whose government has heavily funded and backed one side of the conflict -- the murderous Syrian government -- to the tune of $550 million worth of attack jets, 20,000 Kalashnikovs, and 20 million rounds of ammunition. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 2008 to 2012, Russia provided 71 percent of Syria's foreign arms imports.

The threat of America further weakening international law, Putin tells us, is so dangerous because nations are turning toward other, potentially destabilizing means of ensuring their national security in the absence of respected global norms to protect their interests. "[A] growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction," he writes. "We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded."

Putin is absolutely right that nonproliferation is being eroded; he just fails to acknowledge that his government is among those doing the eroding. Russia has repeatedly blocked or criticized attempts to sanction Iran for its illicit nuclear weapons program. As recently as last month, the Russians were protesting a bill passed by the U.S. House implementing tougher sanctions against Iran, with a Kremlin spokesman complaining, "Any additional sanctions are actually aimed at the economic strangulation of Iran, but not at solving the problem of non-proliferation."

Also disingenuous are Putin's appeals to multilateralism. Russia has resisted even mild rebukes of the Assad regime, repeatedly vetoing United Nations Security Council resolutions condemning the violence. According to Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., "This year alone, Russia has blocked at least three statements expressing humanitarian concern and calling for humanitarian access to besieged cities in Syria. And in the past two months, Russia has blocked two resolutions condemning the generic use of chemical weapons and two press statements expressing concern about their use."

It's no wonder that the Russian president extols the "consensus" system of the Security Council, for the veto has repeatedly allowed Russia and China to block any productive diplomatic action whatsoever over the course of the bloody conflict. (In warning that "[n]o one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage," Putin neglects to mention that the League expelled the Soviet Union over its invasion of Finland in 1939.)

Putin also insists that it might not have been the Syrian government that used poison gas on its citizens: "There is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists." Such a claim, however, flies in the face of not only investigations carried out by the United States and allied intelligence agencies, but also journalistic accounts and independent bodies such as Human Rights Watch, which recently issued a report stating that "alternative claims that opposition forces themselves were responsible for the August 21 attacks" are "lacking in credibility and inconsistent with the evidence found at the scene." According to Foreign Policy's own Colum Lynch, a U.N. chemical weapons investigation team will soon make a "strong circumstantial case" that the regime was behind the attacks.

An expert manipulator, Putin knows how to play upon the deep wells of anti-Americanism that exist all over the globe. But regardless of what one thinks about U.S. behavior on the world stage, Putin is the last person who should be faulting America for alleged unilateralism and failure to heed the norm of international consensus. He bemoans that "military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States." It is incredible that a man who, in 2008, invaded Russia's tiny neighbor of Georgia -- 20 percent of whose territory Russia continues to maintain troops in -- could write this sentence.

Furthermore, Putin argues against American military intervention by arguing, "No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect." Such worry for the safety of Syria's most vulnerable might strike a note of sincerity if it came from anyone other than the man in charge of Russia during the indiscriminate shelling and leveling of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, where Russia waged a brutal war in 1999-2000. Freedom House's Freedom in the World report for the year 2002 detailed "deliberate and indiscriminate bomb attacks on civilian targets [that] caused some 200,000 people to flee Chechnya" and "security sweeps in which civilians were regularly beaten, raped or killed."

The most infuriating of Putin's arguments, however, is when, in his final paragraph, he takes a swipe at President Obama's contention that feeling a need to respond to "children being gassed to death... makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional." According to Putin, the notion that America, or any nation for that matter, is "exceptional" is an "extremely dangerous notion."

This is a point that will no doubt earn Putin plaudits with a segment of the American and international left that contends any claim to a unique American mission in the world is imperialistic and a sign of hubris. But, among other problems, such criticism of American exceptionalism neglects Putin's own promulgation of a cynical Russian exceptionalism, not least his claims to be implementing a system of "sovereign democracy" -- where respect for the rule of law, free speech and association, an independent judiciary, and open elections is nonexistent. In 2008, Russia also announced that it possessed a "sphere of privileged interest" in the nations of the former Soviet Union, an artful term for neo-colonialism.

Putin leaves his readers with the admonition, "we must not forget that God created us equal." This from a man who has signed into law draconian measures that render public discussion of homosexuality illegal and ban gay couples from adopting children, and who has permitted the flourishing of an environment of violent homophobia whereby thugs assault gay people on the street with impunity and post videos on the internet of gay teenagers being tortured. Putin has also presided over his country as it has detained thousands of immigrants and considered mandated deportations.

Reading Vladimir Putin's "plea" to the American people, I could not help but think of the writer Mary McCarthy's observation about an earlier admirer of the Soviet Union, the playwright Lillian Hellman. "Every word she writes is a lie -- including 'and' and 'the.'"