Authorities in northern India said Thursday they have arrested three men, including two police officers, in connection with the suspected gang rape and killing of two teenage sisters whose bodies were found hanging from a tree, sparking renewed public outrage over sexual violence in the country.
Villagers found the girls' bodies hanging from a mango tree on Wednesday morning, hours after they disappeared from fields near their home in Katra village in Uttar Pradesh state, Police Superintendent Atul Saxena said. The girls, who some news reports said were cousins and not sisters, were ages 14 and 15. They had gone into the fields because there was no toilet in their home.
Angry villagers accused the chief of the local police station of ignoring a complaint by the girls' father Tuesday night that the girls were missing. The station chief has since been suspended.
Hundred of people spent the rest of Wednesday in silent protest over alleged police inaction in the case. Indian TV channels showed video of villagers sitting under the girls' bodies as they swung in the wind. The protesters prevented authorities from taking them down from the tree until the suspects were arrested.
Police arrested three men later in the day and were searching for four more suspects. Autopsies confirmed the girls had been gang-raped and strangled before being hung, Saxena said.
That seemed to contradict comments he earlier made to Agence France-Presse, when he said a post-mortem report suggested "the girls probably committed suicide," while adding "we will take into account all aspects before coming to a conclusion."
The family belongs to the Dalit community, considered the lowest rung in India's age-old caste system.
India tightened its anti-rape laws last year, making gang rape punishable by the death penalty. The new laws came after nationwide protests over the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus in New Delhi.
A report by the Asian Center 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 336 percent over that period.
Women are often pressed by family or police to stay quiet about sexual assault, experts say, and those who report cases are often subjected to public ridicule or social stigma.
Last month, the head of Uttar Pradesh state's governing party told an election rally that the party was opposed to the law calling for gang rapists to be executed.
"Boys will be boys," Mulayam Singh Yadav said. "They make mistakes."