SUBALPUR, India (AFP) - Thirteen men arrested over the alleged gang-rape of a woman in India for "dishonouring" her community appeared in court on Friday as a village elder accused of ordering the punishment insisted he was innocent.
As India's chief justice ordered an inquiry into the incident which has further fuelled public anger over levels of sexual violence, the victim's neighbours described her as a charming woman who planned to marry.
Police and prosecutors said the 13 accused were produced before a court in West Bengal's Birbhum district over allegations that the 20-year-old woman was repeatedly assaulted for being in a relationship with a Muslim man.
"All 13 accused arrested on the charge of gang-rape were remanded to 13-day police custody to help police investigate the incident," assistant public prosecutor Phiroz Kumar Pal told AFP.
The defendants included the head of the tribal council in the village of Supalpur, 58-year-old Balai Mardi, who is alleged to have ordered the mass sexual assault after her parents were unable to pay a fine.
But speaking from his cell, wearing a traditional loincloth known as a "lungi", a furious and unshaven Mardi denounced the charges against him.
"It's conspiracy to falsely implicate me," he told AFP.
While the 13 were remanded in custoy, all the other male residents appeared to have fled Subalpur, leaving nervous women and children who were reluctant to speak to visiting journalists.
"She was charming and well-behaved," Ms Laxmi Murmu, 45, who lives next door to the girl's hut, told AFP of the victim.
"The boy promised to marry the girl soon. But the village council did not accept this as the boy was Muslim," she added.
Police in the area, around five hours' drive north of Kolkata, said that a mob had surrounded the victim's house after her ordeal and attempted to intimidate her.
"Members of the village council threatened her with dire consequences if she lodged a complaint with the police," Kazi Mohammad Hossain, a senior officer at the district police station in Labphur, told AFP.
"She was limping and bleeding when she came to the police station," he explained.
The victim, who spoke to journalists on Thursday to confirm that she had been gang-raped, is in the local Suri Sadar hospital where superintendent Asit Kumar Biswas told AFP she was "recovering".
The gruesome new case has again highlighted India's problems with sexual violence after the fatal gang-rape of a student in New Delhi in December 2012 sparked angry protests about the treatment of women.
Councils made up of village elders, usually known as "Khap Panchayats", are common in rural parts of India, especially in the north, where they are often accused of dispensing "Taleban-style justice".
Their diktats are often unconstitutional and illegal, but they continue to hold sway with rules seen as regressive by women's rights activists.
Speaking in court on Friday, India's Chief Justice P. Sathasivam said he was "very disturbed" by the case and ordered the local district judge to visit the village and submit a report within a week.
Relationships remain an extremely sensitive subject in rural areas, where pre-marital sex is taboo and marriages are usually arranged within the same community, caste or religious group.
So-called "honour killings", when a woman is murdered by her male relatives for failing to uphold tradition, continue despite government efforts and social campaigns to stamp out the practice.
"We are living in constant fear because of the whimsical and irrational behaviour of the village council," said 50-year-old Sukul Soren, a resident of the mud-hut village set amid palm trees and fields of rice and mustard, adding: "We want a change in the system."
About a dozen policemen stood outside the small bamboo structure with a thatched roof where Tuesday's crime allegedly took place. Neighbours said the building was used by the village head as a kitchen.
Inside, an AFP reporter saw a makeshift wooden bed, a mosquito net and kitchen utensils.
Police say the elders initially fined the victim's family 25,000 rupees (S$516) for her relationship, but they were too poor to pay.