SRINAGAR, INDIA (REUTERS) - Eight men accused of involvement in the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in India's Jammu and Kashmir state appeared in court on Monday (April 16) for the first hearing in a case that sparked nationwide outrage and criticism of the ruling party.
Disgust over the horrific crime led to protests in cities across India over the past few days, with anger fuelled by support for the accused initially shown by ministers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.
The protests have also focused on another rape incident allegedly involving a BJP lawmaker in the crime-ridden, most populous, poor northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
More rallies demanding action against rapists and violence against women were expected on Monday in the capital and Ahmedabad, the state capital of Mr Modi's home state of Gujarat.
The girl from a nomadic community that roam the forests of Kashmir was drugged, held captive in a temple and sexually assaulted for a week before being strangled and battered with a stone in January, the police said.
According to the charge sheet, the kidnapping, rape and killing of the girl was part of a plan to drive the nomads out of Kathua district in Jammu, the mostly Hindu portion of India's only Muslim majority state.
The alleged ringleader, retired bureaucrat Sanji Ram, looked after a small Hindu temple where the girl had been held captive and assaulted.
Two of the eight on trial were police officers who are accused of being bribed to stifle the investigation.
After the initial hearing on Monday, the judge adjourned the case until April 28.
Ahead of the trial, the lawyer representing the family of the victim said she had been threatened with rape and death for taking up her case, and requested for the trial to be held outside Jammu and Kashmir.
"I was threatened yesterday that 'we will not forgive you'. I am going to tell (the) Supreme Court that I am in danger," said lawyer Deepika Singh Rawat, who has fought for a proper investigation since the girl's body was found in January.
It was only when the charge sheet was finally filed last week, giving details of the horrendous crime, that Indians reacted en masse.
Two ministers from the BJP, which shares power in Jammu and Kashmir, were forced to resign after being pilloried for joining a rally in support of the accused men.
The national outrage over the Kathua case has drawn parallels with the massive protests that followed the gang-rape and murder of a girl on a Delhi bus in 2012, which forced the then Congress-led government to enact tough new rape laws including the death penalty.
But activists say crimes of violence against women are often inadequately investigated, and in some cases accused with political connections have been protected.
More incidents of child rape, including one in Surat in Gujurat, were reported over the weekend.
On Friday, Mr Modi assured the country that the guilty would not be shielded, but he has been criticised for failing to speak out sooner.
Before leaving for an official visit to Europe this week, Mr Modi received a letter from 50 former civil servants upbraiding the country's political leadership over its weak response.
"The bestiality and the barbarity involved in the rape and murder of an eight-year-old child shows the depths of depravity that we have sunk into," the letter said.
"In post-Independence India, this is our darkest hour and we find the response of our government, (and) the leaders of our political parties inadequate and feeble."