NEW DEIHI - India passed legislation lowering the age at which someone can be tried for rape and other crimes to 16, spurred into action by an uproar over the release of a minor convicted in a 2012 fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a Delhi bus.
Parents of the victim had led demand for amendments to the law after their daughter was repeatedly raped and beaten by the 17-year-old minor as well as five adult companions. The woman died of her injuries two weeks later at a Singapore hospital.
Four adults in the case, which drew worldwide condemnation, were sentenced to death while the fifth hanged himself in prison. The death penalties have yet to be carried out.
Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi said on Tuesday the legislation aimed to strike a balance between the rights of a child and the need to deter heinous juvenile crimes, especially against women.
"Juvenile crime is the fastest rising segment in the country and the bill will help to stop (this)," she said. "The new law will decide whether a child committed the crime in a childish or adult frame of mind."
India's upper house of parliament passed the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill by a voice vote, paving the way for lowering the minimum age for a criminal trial to 16 from 18, depending on the gravity of the offence.
The lower house had already passed the bill. It will become law once President Pranab Mukherjee signs it, likely a formality.
Current law defines a person under 18 as a juvenile and caps punishment at three years in a correctional home. Under the new law, 16- and 17-year-olds can be tried as adults, with corresponding sentences of up to life in prison or even the death penalty, depending on the severity of the crime.
The release last Sunday of the teenager involved in the 2012 gang rape sparked street protests by students and the victim's mother, Asha Devi. Police had accused the teenager of gory violence, including pulling out a part of the woman's intestines with his hands.
"I understand that a change in law will not affect my daughter's case, but a serious crime even if it is committed by a minor should not be overlooked," Devi said before the legislation was adopted.
India's National Crime Records Bureau data shows that 16- to 18-year-olds account for a majority of minors arrested for crimes but activists said the latest amendment violated child rights and would not stem sex crimes.
"Lawmakers have committed a blunder by changing the law," said Shahbaz Khan, programme coordinator at Haq, a centre for child rights in New Delhi. "They have taken an emotional decision and only children will suffer the most."