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Rape Suspects In New Delhi Have A Good Chance Of Being Acquitted, Report Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A gang rape in the Indian capital in 2012 ignited an outcry and led to big changes in the law to deliver speedier justice and stiffer punishment. NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi reports on the complex picture that's emerged over the three and a half years since those reforms.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: In New Dehli's bustling courts, a man on trial for rape stands an 83 percent chance of being acquitted. The Hindustan Times newspaper unearthed the finding after analyzing hundreds of judgments spanning a 14-month period in 2014 and '15. Retired Dehli High Court Judge R.S. Sodhi began his legal career representing women free of charge and says he's not put off by the high rate of acquittal.

R.S. SODHI: The fact that 83 percent cases went to court in the very first place is an improvement. That the woman now has the strength to come and say so and so did this to me is an improvement on the system.

MCCARTHY: Of the 663 cases heard, only 114 were found guilty. One reason - half the women are retracting their allegation and turning hostile towards the prosecution. Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy says that victim-blaming in Indian society has somewhat diminished. But it still takes a lot of staying power for a woman to make a complaint.

KARUNA NUNDY: We see cases of backlash in which women have been killed for reporting sexual assault. You know, women have been raped for reporting sexual assault.

MCCARTHY: Another reason for acquittals - some of the cases are found to be fabricated. Defense attorney Manisha Bhandari says a woman files a complaint and withdraws it in exchange for money. Bhandari says rape is also charged to spite a lover when a relationship goes sour.

MANISHA BHANDARI: Women today, they do choose this as an instrument of vengeance.

MCCARTHY: But retired Judge Sodhi says the victim's reversal on the stand more often reveals the source of pressures that are brought to bear on a young woman by her family. Sodhi has heard countless sexual assault cases and says the majority of time close relatives are the perpetrators.

SODHI: And very close family, even up to the father. As a result, it would be better for her to withdraw. So the girl is under pressure.

MCCARTHY: She's under pressure not to embarrass anybody, to keep a secret?

SODHI: To keep it - yes. Under pressure to let the sleeping dog lie.

MCCARTHY: Low conviction rates are also put down to a lack of evidence, poorly-trained police, too few judges despite new fast-track courts that have cut the length of trials. In addition, the stigma of rape remains powerful. Indu Agnihotri, who directs the Center for Women's Development Studies, says it discourages most victims from reporting the crime, especially young women.

INDU AGNIHOTRI: You see, in a country where marriage is seen as the be-all and end-all of a young woman's life, she knows that if she's got a rape case filed against the accused, she's not likely to be able to find a match for herself. And no parent would want that. So what is there in the system to encourage her?

MCCARTHY: But the latest statistics suggest that young women are beginning to reject family dictates. Ten percent of acquittals involved consensual sex, where a young woman says her parents forced her to file a false case because they did not approve of the man she's with. Still, there's been a 300 percent jump in reporting cases since 2012. Karuna Nundy says there's been a multiplier effect.

NUNDY: With each woman who stands up to remedy the "Might Is Right," it becomes clear to 10 others that it is OK to do so.

MCCARTHY: Nundy says while patriarchy remains in place, what may be changing is a woman's sense of shame. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.