BUSIA, Kenya (AFP) - Kenya on Tuesday began to try one of the suspects in a brutal schoolgirl gang-rape, whose initial punishment of cutting grass sparked international outrage.
The suspect, who is charged with gang-rape and grievous bodily harm, tried to cover his face as he appeared under tight police security, according to an AFP reporter in the courtroom in the western Kenyan town of Busia.
As the suspect is himself a minor, reporters and the public were ordered to leave the court after prosecution lawyers asked for the hearing to be closed.
Worldwide outrage over the alleged rapists' lenient punishment last year prompted more than 1.7 million people to sign a petition demanding justice.
The 16-year-old victim, known by the pseudonym Liz, was reportedly attacked, beaten and then raped by a gang of six as she returned from her grandfather's funeral in June last year.
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 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.
"For me the opening of this trial marks a beginning of a new chapter - and victory - after a long struggle," said local civil rights activist Mary Makokha, who has been a key leader campaigning to stop rape in the area.
"I hope this opens doors to other voiceless girls who are vulnerable and who may face a similar attack," she added.
Rape is a serious problem in Kenya but is seldom taken seriously by the police, rights groups say.
Police chief David Kimaiyo has cast doubt on Liz's testimony, saying in November that the time between her screams for help and villagers coming to her rescue was "too short for six assailants to have gang-raped her".
But the public prosecutor later ordered the suspects to be charged with gang-rape.
The other five suspects are reported to be on the run, with the public prosecutor ordering they be "apprehended and brought to justice without further delay".
On Monday, hundreds of protesters marched through Busia demanding justice for Liz, as well as other rape victims.
"Rape has been so rampant in this area that we can't sit back, we need to stop the appalling criminal act," protester Joy Musumba said on Monday, as she marched on the streets holding a placard that read "slashing grass is not punishment for rape".
Kenya's civilian police oversight body has promised it will also investigate the "conduct of the police officers who mishandled the initial report made by Liz".
One mother at the protest on Monday said her 12-year old daughter was gang-raped last year, but said police had not taken the matter seriously.
"The police didn't cooperate and they seemed to intimidate witnesses, so no one came forward," said the woman, who asked not to be named to protect the identity of her child.