Thousands urge help for Indian sisters 'ordered raped'

NEW DELHI - Thousands have signed a petition urging protection for two Indian sisters after a local council allegedly ordered them raped and paraded naked as "punishment" after their brother eloped with a married woman.

Amnesty International said Sunday more than 122,000 people have joined its online petition in recent days to protest at the order by the council of elders or "khap panchayat" in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

"An unelected all-male village council (khap panchayat) ordered that they be raped and paraded naked, their faces blackened, as punishment for the actions of their brother," Amnesty's petition said.

One of the sisters this month filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking protection for her family after they were forced to flee their village in Bhagpat district.

The family, from the lowest "untouchable" Dalit caste, was forced into hiding after the brother eloped with a woman from the village's dominant Jat caste, according to lawyer Vivek Singh.

The council of Jat elders issued the rape order against the sisters, aged 23 and 15, in July after Jats falsely accused the brother of abducting the married woman, Singh said.

"They were threatened by the Jats with rape. They wanted to take revenge for the actions of their brother," Singh, acting for the 23-year-old sister who filed the case, told AFP.

The Supreme Court ordered Uttar Pradesh authorities to reply to the sister's petition by September 15.

Amnesty called Sunday for an investigation into the council's order, saying Dalits suffered widespread discrimination.

But Bhagpat police chief Sharad Sachan said their investigations had so far uncovered no such rape threat against the sisters.

"We have investigated the allegations and found the khap didn't meet over this issue and the threat wasn't issued to the women," Sachan told AFP.

Village councils and "khap panchayats" - separate informal councils composed of elders - exert enormous influence over rural life, particularly in northern India.

Although they carry no legal weight, khaps can be highly influential and have been blamed for numerous abuses such as the sanctioning of "honour killings" of couples defying tradition.

Branded "kangaroo courts" by critics, they have also been known to hand down public beatings for perceived crimes.