NAIROBI (AFP) - Kenya's police cast doubt on Saturday on a schoolgirl's testimony she was gang-raped, even as the chief justice ordered "action" in a case that has sparked outrage worldwide after the alleged attackers were ordered only to cut grass.
The reported ferocious attack on the teenage girl and the lack of action against the perpetrators has led to an outcry in Kenya, while over 1.3 million people worldwide have signed a petition demanding justice.
But Kenyan police chief David Kimaiyo said investigations suggested that the girl's report was false, claiming 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".
"Investigations have revealed information which the public do not have and which members of the public need to appreciate before they offer a blanket condemnation on the incident," he said in a statement.
The 16-year-old, 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, before the gang dumped her, bleeding and unconscious, in a deep sewage ditch.
Liz has to use a wheelchair after suffering a broken back, caused either by the beating or by being hurled down into the pit. She also suffered serious internal injuries from the rape.
But Kimaiyo said she had fallen into the pit while escaping her attackers, not because she was thrown in there.
He added that because she did not report the rape for two months, it "may therefore be futile" to charge suspects "without proper evidence".
Police have been heavily criticised for their response, and on Thursday, hundreds of protestors marched through Nairobi wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Justice for Liz" draping dozens of pairs of women's knickers along the fence of police headquarters.
In contrast to the police chief, Kenya's chief justice said on Saturday he had ordered "immediate action" over the case.
"I have sent the matter to the National Council for the Administration of Justice (NCAJ) for immediate action," Kenya Chief Justice Willy Mutunga said Saturday.
The NCAJ is Kenya's top-level judicial oversight body bringing together the judiciary, police, attorney-general and director of public prosecutions.
Nebila Abdulmelik of the women's rights campaign group Femnet launched the petition demanding justice.
"Our immediate task is for the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators, and then disciplinary action at the police who failed to take action, because we feel that they embolden others to rape," Abdulmelik said during the demonstration.
"We are using Liz's story to bring to light all the other cases of violence that are not necessarily reported to the media, to the police."
The girl's mother told the Daily Nation newspaper, which first reported the story, that the three men identified by Liz were only ordered to cut grass around the police station.
"My wish is to see justice done," Liz also told the newspaper. "I want my attackers arrested and punished."
The number of people signing the petition calling for justice continued to climb, publicised by the online campaign group Avaaz, which calls grass cutting the "world's worst punishment for rape".
"Nobody has been brought to justice - not the rapists, and not the police," Avaaz says in its call for people to sign the petition.
"Women's groups in Kenya say nothing will truly change unless the government is put under the global spotlight."
Rape is a major problem in Kenya. Studies say it is often not taken seriously by the police, with a devastating impact on victims.
One government study in 2009 found that as many as a fifth of women and girls were victims of sexual violence, although other studies have put the rate even higher.
Another UN-backed government study in 2010 focusing on children found a third of girls and a fifth of boys had suffered sexual violence.