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Woman Heading To Testify At Rape Trial Set On Fire In India

Activists demanding justice in the case of a veterinarian who was gang-raped and killed last week shout slogans during a protest on Thursday in Kolkata, India.
Bikas Das
Activists demanding justice in the case of a veterinarian who was gang-raped and killed last week shout slogans during a protest on Thursday in Kolkata, India.

Updated at 11:12 p.m. ET

As a 23-year-old woman in India was heading to testify against a man who allegedly raped her, a group of men that she says included her rapist attacked her and set her on fire. It's yet another horrifying incident in a country grappling with high levels of sexual violence against women.

One of her doctors at a hospital in Uttar Pradesh says she is in very serious condition.

"She has 90 per cent burn injuries and we are taking utmost care. A team of doctors are observing her," said Ashutosh Dubey, the medical superintendent of the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Hospital, told The Times of India.

According to local news reports, the five men took the unnamed victim to a secluded spot, where they poured kerosene on her and set her on fire. Local authorities say all of them have been taken into custody, as Reuters reported.

The rape allegedly happened last December in Unnao district. According to the wire service, police documents indicate that the woman filed a complaint in March about the alleged attack. The accused man was apprehended – but a police officer told the wire service that "the alleged rapist was released last week after securing bail."

Protests have erupted in India in the past week calling for justice over another violent incident – the rape and murder of a 27-year-old veterinarian in the city of Hyderabad.

As the woman was on her way home last Wednesday, NPR's Lauren Frayer reported, police believe that "four men deflated her tires and posed as good Samaritans to trick her, and then gang-raped and murdered her." Her body was also burned.

The four men were arrested, Frayer reported. According to Human Rights Watch, on the night of the woman's murder, her family said police would not take a missing persons complaint and suggested that she eloped. After protests, three police officers were suspended.

"Now [authorities] say all four have been shot dead in a struggle with police," Frayer reported. "Local media say police took them back to the scene of the crime, where they tried to attack officers."

"A member of parliament had called for the suspects to be publicly lynched, and there were concerns about whether they could get a fair trial amid national outrage."

Unnao, the district where Thursday's incident took place, has been in the headlines in India recently over another sexual violence allegation. As the BBC reported, "police opened a murder investigation against a ruling party lawmaker in July after a woman who accused him of rape was seriously injured in a car crash."

A poll last year from the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked India as the most dangerous country for women in the world. "According to the latest government crime figures, police registered 33,658 cases of rape in India in 2017 - that's an average of 92 rapes every day," the BBC reported. For comparison, the FBI saysabout 100,000 rapes were reported in the U.S. in 2017.

Outrage over a high-profile 2012 gang rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi prompted the government to make some reforms. But according to Human Rights Watch, "these changes largely remain on paper."

"Survivors of sexual violence face formidable barriers, from reporting to police, to obtaining health care, counseling, and legal aid," the rights group added. "Powerful perpetrators are often protected by authorities."

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.