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Gang Rape Case in India and Violence Against Women in General Examined; Syrian Violence Reportedly Has Killed 60,000 People

Aired January 3, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, and welcome to the program. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

Tonight, the brutal crime that has sparked outrage in India and around the world, a 23-year-old woman was raped by a gang of men in New Delhi last month, sparking angry protests throughout the country.


SWEENEY (voice-over): The young woman, whose name hasn't been released, died in Singapore on Saturday from the massive injuries incurred during the assault. Her ashes were scattered in the Ganges River on Tuesday.

India's prosecutors are fast-tracking the case. The suspects were charged with murder, rape and kidnapping in a New Delhi court today.


SWEENEY: The victim's father, seen with his face blurred, is calling for the ultimate penalty.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Laws are made by the government. But all I ask is that the law be the toughest it can be. The death penalty is compulsory for a crime so grave.

The assailants must be hanged. The courts must give these men the death penalty.


SWEENEY: The tragic case casts a harsh light on India, one of the worst places on Earth for women.

Tens of thousands of rapes are reported there each year, and presumably hundreds of thousands more go unreported. Almost half the world's child marriages take place in India and millions of girls are voluntarily aborted by families who prefer male babies, according to a British medical journal.

Meanwhile, in India's legal system, rape victims are often ignored or humiliated and may be subject to invasive procedures, like the two-finger test to determine whether a woman is, quote, "habituated to sexual activity."

This 17-year-old girl reported a gang rape in November, only to have the police ask obscene questions about the assault and suggest she marry one of her rapists. The girl committed suicide last week.

The case may be a watershed moment in India and in a moment I'll speak with a women's rights activist working to change the system there. But first, here's a look at what is coming up later in the program.


SWEENEY (voice-over): In Syria, they're pouring gas on the fire, with over 60,000 dead and counting, when the does the world say, 'enough is enough'?

And she was a trailblazing scientist in a man's world and a target of racial hatred in fascist Italy. A century of courage and discovery.


SWEENEY: We'll get to that in a bit. But first, my conversation with Kirti Singh, a lawyer and activist who has been fighting for women's rights in India for decades. She joined me earlier from New Delhi.


SWEENEY: Welcome to the program. Kirti Singh, this case has provoked outrage not only in India but across the world. Do you believe that this is a pivotal, watershed moment for your country?

KIRTI SINGH, SUPREME COURT LAWYER AND WOMEN'S RIGHTS ACTIVIST: It is a pivotal, watershed moment, precisely because this case has triggered reaction which was suppressed over many years and by a much wider pocket of citizens than had earlier expressed their, you know, anger and anguish at cases like this.

However, cases of this nature have been occurring for a long, long time. And the government has not really done much about it.

SWEENEY: This case has been obviously fast-tracked. What are your feelings about that? Presumably you're happy to see the case fast-tracked. But what does it mean for all those other cases, such as the only 30 percent of rape cases that ended in conviction throughout India last year?

SINGH: Yes, and indeed, because what happens is not only are the cases not fast-tracked, but the investigation is extremely shoddy. That's why rapists seem to get away with the feeling that they will not be punished. And criminals act with impunity in our country.

The investigation by the police is shoddy because they are frequently biased. They may not collect proper evidence. They may not -- they may be corrupt if the person involved is an influential person.

SWEENEY: Let me ask you about why you believe the police are biased. As a member of the police yourself, formerly, you must be aware of why you believe this to be such an institutionalized case of bias.

SINGH: Well, police attitudes reflect the attitude, the male bias attitude of a large number of people in our society, a large section, I should say, in our society, patriarchal values and cultures are common.

And people here have a mindset which commodifies women, which doesn't treat them as equal. And therefore, anything that you do to a woman is justified by saying that she may have invited it. If she wears a dress which reveals her legs, she invites rape. If she goes out with a boy, she invites rape. And so these justifications are, you know, plenty in our society.

And we need to really change this mindset, too, and change -- but, of course, when it is the police, we have to be especially careful because they are extremely important actors, the police, the judiciary, and the entire criminal justice system. And their mindset needs to be, I think, targeted first.

SWEENEY: In relation to how the police treat victims of rape, some of the details that we have learned about what they put the alleged victim through are really quite shocking, for example, the two-finger examination.


SWEENEY: Is this a practice that is condoned by the authorities, the government?

SINGH: Well, yes, it is a fairly widespread practice. And the courts have been, you know, looking at evidence through this two-finger test.

But we have asked for an immediate stop to this test and try to point out that it's neither scientific nor relevant and only ends up in humiliating and insulting the woman and there are several cases which show how this test has been misused to, you know, blame the victim or complainant of rape.

SWEENEY: And why is the test used in the first place, if you can explain?

SINGH: It was used to say really that, you know, the -- a woman is used to sexual intercourse, as if that would in any event establish that she was not raped at this particular time. But mostly it was used to actually impeach the credibility of the main prosecutrix in the case.

SWEENEY: This case of this unfortunate woman has done a lot of damage to India's image, its reputation overseas. Are you confident now that the prime minister, who presumably was taken by surprise by the huge reaction against him and against rape against women, has handled this issue correctly?

SINGH: Well, I don't think they realized soon enough, you know, how outraged their citizens were and, you know, how deep the anger was and deep -- how deep the frustration was with the government and its functioning, with the police and its functioning.

And I hope that they do realize that they cannot, you know, sort of wish away such protests and they cannot ignore questions of women's rights and questions of her equality. And that is why I hope they will seriously start looking at the education for a girl child; they will seriously start looking at questions of nutrition and, you know, medical help for girls.

They will -- and they will seriously bring in legislation which will try to end the, you know, all the various forms of discrimination and violence against the girl child.


SINGH: Apart from that, they have to put in place procedures.

SWEENEY: In terms of the men who were charged today, their lawyers, many lawyers in the district don't want to represent them, but they will be appointed lawyers.

Now how do you feel about whether or not they'll get a fair trial? Should they get a fair trial in many people's opinion in India? And what are your thoughts about the death penalty?

SINGH: Well, I think they should get a fair trial. Everybody's, you know, has a right to a fair trial in the country. The constitution guarantees it. And so I hope they will get a fair trial. I hope there will be lawyers who will represent them to the best of their ability.

As far as the death penalty's concern, I feel that it is not necessary in these cases. I feel that the certainty of punishment is far more important. What has been happening in our country is that there's a very low rate of conviction. And that's why people feel that, you know, rapists get away with impunity.

But, however, if there were more convictions, if the convictions were certainly, you know, resulted in sufficient terms of imprisonment for the rapists, I think death penalty should not be a demand. It certainly isn't of the women's organizations and groups that I work with.

SWEENEY: Kirti Singh, thank you very much for joining us.

SINGH: Thank you.


SWEENEY: And at, we have an opinion piece from the head of Amnesty International in India who also says the death penalty is no deterrent to crimes of rape.

And in case you wondered why our guest, Kirti Singh, could see her breath, it is cold in India today. Just how cold is it? Well, take a look at this picture.


SWEENEY (voice-over): Those men are trying to stay warm in New Delhi where temperatures dropped below 5 degrees Celsius, the coldest it's been in 44 years.

And when we come back, it is a new year with the same sad story in Syria. I'll ask two journalists who've been on the ground there and know it well with 60,000 dead and counting, is there an ending to this story in sight?



SWEENEY: Welcome back to the program. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, filling in for Christiane Amanpour.

Grim new numbers from Syria, more than 60,000 people have been killed in the intractable civil war that has raged on for nearly two years. Just today, opposition activists report 131 casualties, including 14 children. A staggering 500,000 Syrians have fled the country since the conflict began. U.N. estimates a number it said could double in the coming year.

NPR foreign correspondent Deb Amos has just returned from a five-week trip in and out of northern Syria. Her coverage on Syria received the 2013 DuPont Award. Thank you for joining us very much here in the studio.

First of all, your impressions of Syria being in there as this war has gone on, the last time you were there, what went through your mind?

DEBORAH AMOS, NPR NEWS CORRESPONDENT: I did a lot of work in the refugee camps. And you see such devastated lives in those places. Those numbers mean something when you're on the ground. You know, 90 percent of the people who were killed were killed this year. And so that means 2012 was so much more devastating than 2011.

And you see people living rather rough in bombed-out homes, in schools. And there's no international aid that is coming in to help them. So it is up to newly-formed local councils or rebel groups to take care of these displaced people.

SWEENEY: And, of course, that raises all sorts of questions. But interestingly enough -- and we have them just now -- CNN's Nick Paton Walsh was in Syria today. He was at a refugee camp before safely crossing the border back into Turkey. He joins me now.

Nick, can you hear me? It's Fionnuala.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I can hear you, Fionnuala, yes. Hi.

SWEENEY: Hi. We've been talking to Deb Amos of NPR here in the studio. And when she was last in Syria, she visited refugee camps. And her point is that these people are living in dire conditions and that the huge numbers we hear of half a million refugees really don't translate until you see it on the ground. You just went in and out to a refugee camp in Syria today. What did you find there?

WALSH: In a brief visit just inside Syria, very much people caught in no man's land here. I mean, literally hundreds of meters away from Turkey, its developed economy but also trapped between that and the war they've fled, some having fled as (inaudible) as yesterday from the nearby town of Asathrathers (ph), having been on the move for months.

But it got really, even that brief period of time, a snapshot of what these people consider to be the global disregard for their plight. In fact, one man approached me in England to say, "Are we being ignored by the West because the White House hates Muslims?"

Obviously, that's not the case, given there has been American Turkish, many other aid trickling through to this part of the world. But that really sums up the resentment these people are feeling. And they've left everything to run from the war, having nothing, want for very little, frankly.

But even now, after 21 months of this revolt and a year, frankly, of this refugee crisis, people are still struggling to find basic food. Winter's setting in and they're living in plastic tents that themselves, that we saw today, they're bringing inside large concrete hangars in a bid to do something, just anything, to try and keep the bitter cold they're feeling here tonight out.

SWEENEY: And Nick, what kind of international assistance is there for them?

WALSH: We saw some degree of aid trickling in. But it's really not that evident on the ground at all. I mean (inaudible) living conditions are atrocious. We spoke to one man who'd lost his very young infant daughter in the last week, simply because they couldn't keep her warm enough. They didn't have a heater.

Those who do have heaters, they can't afford wood. There simply isn't enough money and it's such a valuable commodity that we saw children today scavenging fields for plastic that they could burn.

That, in turn, creates a terrible acrid and poisonous smoke (inaudible) across a very kind of tense and densely crusted tent city we saw. It can be very hard to live there for so many. And as I say, basic foodstuff's in short supply, Fionnuala.

SWEENEY: All right. Thank you very much for that, Nick Paton Walsh there, joining us live from Turkey. He's just been in and out of Syria this day.

Back to Deb Amos of NPR.

Excuse me; we're hearing a very difficult situation for the refugees. You say that they're turning to having to help themselves and other people. But presumably some of the rebel groups are helping them and perhaps these are rebel groups that are not necessarily to the liking of certain of the international community.

AMOS: Well, let's first say that the international community has put their money in traditional refugee camps in the border countries where we have half a million refugees. It is the displaced inside Syria that are in these really dire conditions.

It is true that there are rebel groups that, in fact, one in particular that has been sanctioned by the United States, and that's the Al-Nusra Front. They have been giving out free bread and free fuel oil because they are in a bit of a hearts-and-minds campaign. And it has worked for them in towns where they have those kind of resources.

SWEENEY: When you sanctioned by the United States, you mean they're not in favor with the United States; they're considered a terrorist group?

AMOS: Indeed.

SWEENEY: All right. And this presumably presents the dilemma for how this war plays out, because presumably when it ends, the people who've been supported by groups such as these will presumably turn and continue to support them.

AMOS: Hard to know that, Fionnuala, honestly. So many people say that we would sleep with the devil to get rid of Bashar al-Assad.

And if these guys, the bearded guys who talk about making a caliphate in Syria after the war's over, if these guys can make the planes stop bombing us, if these guys give us bread, then we're with them. I think afterwards it's not clear who will support whom. But right now, these are the most effective fighters on the ground.

SWEENEY: Do you agree with the seeming international contention that Bashar al-Assad is on his way out?

AMOS: I think it's very difficult to see Syria resuming where it was before 2011. I think all of us say if rather than when simply because we are hedging, I think. I have no crystal ball. It's impossible to say. But this is now a government that no longer controls its borders. It has a diplomatic core in ruins because so many of them have defected. It has an army that has shrunk into essentially a militia.

SWEENEY: And yet an army that is still striking people in huge numbers of -- queueing for bread, queueing for fuel, both of which are in very short supply.

And it raises the question that if the international community has drawn a red line for Bashar al-Assad, in terms of the use of chemical weapons, that he has stayed behind that red line. But I'm wondering in terms of war crimes, what is the difference with people queueing for bread in mass numbers, commodities that they need?

AMOS: That is certainly what Syrians want to know, why is the red line there? Is it any worse to drop a barrel bomb on us with nails and explosives than it is to hit us with chemical weapons? But the regime's strategy all along has been to test the international community.

Is it OK to kill 10 a day? Is it OK to kill 100 a day? This year, since July, there have been 5,000 people who've been killed every single month. It's an extraordinary and an alarming number. And the weaponry has gotten more and more and more heavy.

SWEENEY: And you don't see as yet how it's going to pan out?

AMOS: I think it's very difficult. At the moment, the international community is desperate for some sort of negotiated settlement. They are so worried that if the regime collapses, you will have chaos, loose chemical weapons, and armed groups across the country.

SWEENEY: Well, what are the prospects of there being a diplomatic negotiated international solution to this before the fighting ends on the ground? And will this -- the outcome of this be determined on the ground?

AMOS: It depends on how the ground goes. As we've seen, at the moment, the rebels are not able to win on the ground, neither is the regime. And I can tell you, from being in Istanbul, that there are times when the international community appears to be turning off the tap for the rebels. And I think that what is happening --

SWEENEY: Why is that? (Inaudible)?

AMOS: -- I think what is happening is there is some sort of arrangement so that they don't exactly win the war, but they push the regime enough to make them talk. And in the past couple of weeks, we've seen some signaling from the regime.

The vice president, Farouk al-Sharaa, gave an interview to a Lebanese newspaper and said nobody's going to win. Maybe we should talk. And then you see President Bashar al-Assad say I'm not going anywhere. So there is some movement in the regime. Is it enough to get a deal? Not very clear.

SWEENEY: Briefly, having covered many stories in your time, how does Syria compare in terms of your covering as a journalist?

AMOS: It's the most dangerous conflict that I know.

SWEENEY: Because there are no rules?

AMOS: There's no rules at all, at least in Iraq we knew where to be. I now am looking at towns being bombed in places I was two weeks ago, which I thought was safe on the day that I crossed that border. And I often realize that there are no safe places inside Syria.

SWEENEY: We must leave it there, but Deborah Amos from NPR, thank you for coming in to speak to us about your experiences in Syria and where you think this situation is currently at.

AMOS: Thank you.

SWEENEY: Well, whether it is the endless silence in Syria or a war on women in India, this New Year may seem to offer precious little hope. But when we come back, we'll find inspiration in a remarkable woman who lived over 100 years and made every single one of them count. We'll be right back.




SWEENEY: Our final thought tonight, as women fighting for their rights in India and across the globe, imagine one woman who defied the odds and made the world a better place for 100 years.

When Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Italy in 1909, girls were expected to marry and have children. But she wanted to be a doctor. Despite her father's opposition, she graduated from medical school ready to devote her life to research. Then Mussolini and the fascists came to power. Being Jewish, she was banned from pursuing her dream, but that didn't stop her.

She turned her bedroom into a laboratory, risking her life to conduct her research in secret. Her solitary work led her to see what other scientists had missed, a crucial factor that allows cells to grow and develop.

After the war, she came to America to continue her research, creating a new way of understanding conditions like cancer and Alzheimer's.

In 1986, she shared the Nobel Prize in physiology on medicine and continued to work even after her 100th birthday, making her the oldest living Nobel laureate.

"At 100," she said, "I have a mind that is superior, thanks to experience, than when I was 20."

Rita Levi-Montalcini died this week at the age of 103. She never did marry or have children. But she leaves behind a legacy of courage and discovery.

That's it for tonight's program. Meantime, you can always contact us on Thank you for watching and goodbye from New York.