NEW DELHI — An Indian court on Monday convicted six men over the kidnap, rape and murder of a Muslim nomadic girl last year, bringing to a close a case that gripped India and reflected bitter religious divisions.
After a closed trial, the men, who included police officials, were handed sentences ranging from five years to life imprisonment for their crimes against the 8-year-old girl, which occurred in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir. A seventh person was acquitted for lack of evidence.
The mother of the girl, whose name and identity were protected by court order, said the decision was “a victory for all those sane voices that campaigned for justice.”
The case provoked weeks of protest and breathless front-page coverage in India, with a level of outrage reminiscent of the reaction several years ago when a young woman was raped on a bus and died of her injuries.
Beyond its brutality, the crime was noteworthy for the role religion played in heightening tensions. According to investigators, the man behind the plot, Sanji Ram, a retired government revenue officer, had targeted the 8-year-old girl to strike fear in her Muslim nomadic tribe, the Bakarwal, and drive them from the rugged Himalayan region where they live as shepherds.
In January 2018, the girl was kidnapped from a meadow and locked in a remote Hindu temple in the district of Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir. For days, several men, all of them Hindu, drugged, starved and gang-raped her. She was eventually strangled and hit in the head with a rock. The girl’s body was dumped in a forest, her purple dress stained with blood.
The story initially made few ripples beyond local news outlets. But in April 2018, The Indian Express, one of India’s most widely circulated newspapers, published graphic details from a police report, including the detail that one of the men, himself a police official, had asked that the girl be kept alive so he could rape her one last time.
The crime quickly became a religious flash point in India. Some Hindu nationalists rallied to the side of the men, saying that they had been set up and were innocent.
Protests spread in Kathua. Dozens of Hindu women organized hunger strikes and threatened to set themselves on fire if the case proceeded. At one point, a mob of Hindu lawyers physically blocked police officers from entering a courthouse to file charges against the men.
Several prominent members of the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party also pushed to move the case from the state police to the Central Bureau of Investigation, a strategy that was perceived by many as an attempt to win leniency for the accused. (The C.B.I. falls under the purview of the central government.)
Reacting to Monday’s verdict, Sarah Jacob, an anchor on NDTV, an Indian news channel, said that the case’s handling had all the elements of a “bad horror movie.”
“Every single loophole that could have been abused has been abused,” she said. “This is not just a victory for the family of that 8-year-old girl. It’s a victory of the legal system in our country.”
A special court in the state of Punjab handed down the verdict, which was based on testimony from more than 100 witnesses. Before the hearing, the police tightened security by deploying several hundred officers around the building and by bringing in a tank. There were no reports of violence.
Three of the men, including Mr. Ram, were convicted on charges of kidnapping, rape and murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment. The others were found guilty of destroying evidence and given five years in jail. The court acquitted Mr. Ram’s son, Vishal. All of the men were tried under laws that could have brought the death penalty.
Among members of the girl’s community, who are on their way to Kashmir for the summer, many expressed relief and joy when they heard the verdict, though some wondered if the sentences were strong enough. The girl’s father said that his wounds were as fresh today as when the crime occurred.
“I will say justice is done on the day I hear these beasts hanged,” he said by telephone. “In her, I had a new life, a reason to live. That reason to live is gone.”