Six of eight men accused of the rape, torture and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Indian-administered Kashmir have been found guilty in a specially convened fast-track court.
The victim, who belonged to a Muslim nomadic tribe, was found in a forest near Kathua city in January 2018.
The case made headlines when Hindu right-wing groups and lawyers protested over the arrest of the eight men.
All of them had pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.
One of them – the son of one of those convicted – has been acquitted. The eight accused include a retired government official, four police officers and a minor.
The minor will be tried separately in accordance with India’s juvenile act, which is why only seven people were subject to Monday’s court verdict.
The child’s mother has demanded capital punishment for two of those convicted – retired government officer Sanji Ram and police officer Deepak Khajuria – claiming that they were the “masterminds” behind the crime.
“My daughter’s face still haunts me and that pain will never leave me. When I see other children of her age playing around me, it breaks my heart,” she told the BBC’s Divya Arya at her family home. The family chose not to attend the court to listen to the verdict.
“This is a victory of constitutional spirit,” the lawyer representing the child’s family told BBC Punjabi. “The whole country fought this case, irrespective of religious affiliations.”
When delivering its verdict, the court said that the sentences of the six convicts would be announced at 14:00 local time (08:30 GMT).
The lawyer representing the accused said that despite the conviction, the case was based on “circumstantial evidence” and has pleaded for minimum punishment for the six men. He added that there were mitigating circumstances, including the fact that the men were the sole breadwinners in their families.
The Kathua rape and murder was one among many high-profile cases that prompted India to introduce a new law which mandated the death penalty to anyone convicted of raping a child under 12.
Details of the injuries inflicted on the child had horrified many Indians.
Outrage grew after two ministers from India’s governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attended a rally in support of the accused men, whose community was involved in a land dispute with the nomadic tribe the girl belonged to.
Investigators at the time said that the child was targeted because the accused men wished to terrorise the tribe- known as Gujjars- into leaving.
The sentiment around the case prompted the top court to move the trial out of Jammu and Kashmir to a court in Pathankot in the northern state of Punjab and start the trial afresh.
The victim’s parents had said that they felt “threatened” in Kathua, where the community is predominantly Hindu.