Many in India were left outraged after the Bombay High Court recently ruled that groping a child without removing their clothing does not qualify as sexual assault. This comes after a court case in which a 39-year-old man was found not guilty of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl.

The incident occurred in December 2016 when, according to court documents, the man lured the child to his home by promising her guavas. Once he had her alone, he touched her chest and attempted to remove her underwear.

He was initially found guilty of sexual assault by a lower court and sentenced to three years in prison. Under Indian law, those found guilty of sexual assault may receive a minimum three-year prison term which could be extended to five years.

He then appealed to the High Court, where the ruling was overturned, despite the country’s Protection of Children From Sexual Offenses Act 2012 not specifying that sexual assault refers to skin-on-skin contact.

On January 19,  Judge Pushpa Ganediwala ruled that because there was no skin-on-skin contact since the child’s clothing was not removed, the incident “would not fall in the definition of ‘sexual assault'”.

“Considering the stringent nature of punishment provided for the offence, in the opinion of this court, stricter proof and serious allegations are required,” she wrote in her ruling. “It is the basic principle of criminal jurisprudence that the punishment for an offence shall be proportionate to the seriousness of the crime,” she said.

She acquitted him of the sexual assault charge but convicted him on a charge of molestation, for which he received a one-year prison sentence.

Soon after the ruling, many in India took to social media to question the court’s logic and expressed concerns this will set a precedent for lower courts in dealing with sexual assault cases.

A Change.Org petition has been created calling for the court to reverse the ruling.

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has filed an urgent appeal against the judgment.

The National Commission for Women also plans to challenge this ruling in court, tweeting, “The judgment will not only have cascading effect on various provisions involving safety and security of women in general but also put all the women under ridicule and has trivialized the legal provisions provided by the legislature for the safety and security of women.”

Indian Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nundy tweeted that the ruling was “completely contrary to established law” and will contribute to impunity in crimes against girls.

Sexual assault has long been a huge societal issue in India. In 2012, the world was shocked when a 23-year-old was gang-raped and murdered while on a New Delhi bus. This high-profile court case spurred many legal reforms and the introduction of more severe penalties for such crimes. Despite this, similar incidents continue to be reported.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

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