LUCKNOW, India - Two teenage girls have been found hanging from a tree in a northern Indian village after they were gang-raped by five men, police said Thursday, in a brutal attack highlighting the country's poor record on sexual violence.
Police have arrested one man over the attack on the cousins, aged 14 and 15 and from the lowest Dalit caste, who were discovered hanging on Wednesday morning in Budaun district of Uttar Pradesh state.
A post-mortem report indicated the cousins hanged themselves late Tuesday after being attacked, police said. The girls had earlier walked into a field to go to the toilet because they didn't have one in their home when they were set upon, according to local media reports.
"The report suggests ante-mortem hanging, which means the girls probably committed suicide. But we will take into account all aspects before coming to a conclusion," Atul Saxena, Budaun police chief, told AFP.
The attack sparked protests by the girls' families and other villagers, who accused police of failing to act after the bodies were found.
Television footage showed the villagers including children sitting on the ground under the tree in protest with the bodies hanging above.
The families belong to the Dalit caste, previously known as "untouchables", considered on the lowest rung of India's deeply entrenched social hierarchy system.
Mr Saxena said police had arrested one suspect after the girls' relatives registered a complaint against five men for gang-rape, murder and child sexual abuse.
"A team of around 50 police officers is on the lookout for the absconding accused," he added. Saxena could not confirm the exact ages of the attackers, but said they were in their "late teens".
Local police officers have also been suspended from duty for their initial apathy over the crime, he said.
The attack is the latest to highlight India's dismal record on preventing sexual violence, despite tougher laws after the fatal gang-rape of a student in New Delhi in December 2012 shook the nation's conscience.
Earlier this year, a young girl was gang-raped in a remote village in West Bengal state on orders from tribal village elders who objected to her relationship with a Muslim man.
Women's activist and researcher Ranjana Kumari urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his newly elected government to come good on its campaign pledge to improve safety for women.
"Modi must take a stand and say enough because the attacks are just getting more and more horrendous," Ms Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research in New Delhi, told AFP.
"Police attitudes and actions have clearly not improved (since the Delhi gang-rape). Men are targeting girls from minority groups, poor girls and no one cares," she said.
Mr Modi clinched a landslide victory in general elections this month over the left-leaning Congress, thanks in part to a stunning performance by his right-wing Hindu nationalist party in Uttar Pradesh.
Last month, the head of the state's governing party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, told an election rally he was opposed to the death penalty for gang rapists, saying "they are boys, they make mistakes."