Kenya 'grass cutter' gang rapists jailed for 15 years: lawyer

NAIROBI (AFP) - A Kenyan court convicted three men Monday for the brutal gang rape of a schoolgirl, boosting their original punishment of being made to cut grass to 15 years in jail, her legal team said.

"Today's sentencing is sure to have a ripple effect across the nation, and hopefully the region at large," said lawyer Kimberly Brown, from the campaign group Equality Now, which supported the schoolgirl.

Worldwide outrage over the punishment prompted more than 1.8 million people to sign an online petition demanding justice.

The then 16-year-old victim, known by the pseudonym Liz, was reportedly attacked, beaten and then raped by six men as she returned from her grandfather's funeral in western Kenya in June 2013.

The gang dumped her, bleeding and unconscious, in a deep sewage ditch.

She suffered a broken back, caused either by the beating or by being hurled down into the pit, as well as serious internal injuries from the rape.

"The fact that Liz's case took so long to reach this point - and still faced serious obstacles despite strong national and global support - illustrates the injustices that are still suffered by survivors," Brown added.

"While Kenya boasts one of the most progressive legal and policy frameworks for addressing sexual violence, Liz's case and countless others have revealed significant failures of local authorities to adequately address sexual violence."

The case made global headlines after it emerged that three of the alleged rapists whom Liz identified were ordered by police to cut grass around the police station as punishment.

Other suspects are on the run, with the public prosecutor ordering they be "apprehended and brought to justice without further delay", although it has been a more than a year since arrest warrants were issued.

Sentencing had been set for last Friday but was delayed after one of the men skipped bail and failed to turn up, but police arrested him over the weekend.

Rape is a serious problem in Kenya but is seldom taken seriously by the police, rights groups say.

"The sheer scale of sexual violence in schools, communities and its general acceptability in society is astounding," Ms Brown added.

At the time, then police chief David Kimaiyo cast doubt on Liz's testimony, saying the time between her screams for help and villagers coming to her rescue was "too short for six assailants to have gang raped.

One study in 2013 suggested as many as 19 in every 20 rapes are not reported to the police, with victims reluctant to enter a process many feel will not lead to justice.

"Negative cultural attitudes towards women, as well as the fear and stigma associated with such crimes, make reporting of cases a daunting and often impossible task," Brown added.

"If a victim manages to overcome the huge initial hurdle and manages to report what happened, apathy or a lack of knowledge of laws, policies and procedures by officials, and the continued lack of resources, mean that cases are often handled poorly from the outset."