Indian police were accused Wednesday of cremating the body of a 19-year-old woman against her family's will after she was allegedly gang-raped by four men in the country's latest horrific sexual assault.
The teenager from India's marginalised Dalit community suffered serious injuries in a brutal sexual attack two weeks ago, according to her family and police, and died at a New Delhi hospital on Tuesday.
The case has sparked widespread anger across India that was further fuelled Wednesday by accusations that police seized the woman's body and cremated it against the wishes of her family.
On Tuesday night clashes between police and protesters appalled by the killing erupted outside the hospital, before a large group of officers escorted the hearse back to her native village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Her family told local media that the corpse was seized by police upon its arrival at the village in Hathras district, despite resistance from relatives and villagers, and was cremated in the middle of the night.
Police did not offer an explanation but multiple relatives protested against the 3 am cremation, saying they wanted the body to lie at the family home for a time so absent loved ones could return to pay their respects.
"We begged them to let us bring her body inside the house one last time, but they didn't listen to us," the woman's brother was quoted as saying by the Indian Express daily.
Hathras police then ordered that the cremation go ahead and family members were forced to join, relatives told local media.
Police chief Vikrant Vir denied the allegations, saying the cremation took place with the consent of the family.
"The police provided the firewood and helped the family in the cremation. Most of the family members were present at the cremation. We did not want any outsider to create law and order disturbances," Vir told AFP.
On September 14 the victim was found lying in a pool of blood and was paralysed from injuries to her neck and spine after she went missing while heading to fields in the village.
The tragedy has sparked uproar and lit up social media in India, with politicians, Bollywood personalities, cricket stars and women's rights activists condemning the attack.
On Tuesday hundreds of people including the victim's relatives gathered outside the Delhi hospital to protest against the attack before authorities deployed riot police forcing them to disperse.
Officers detained Chandrashekhar Azad, a Dalit politician, as he led demonstrators demanding the death penalty for the accused men.
Another protest was due to take place in Delhi on Wednesday as well as in Uttar Pradesh's capital Lucknow.
The four alleged attackers have been arrested.
India's 200 million low-caste "untouchable" Dalits have long faced discrimination and abuse, and campaigners say attacks on them have increased during the coronavirus pandemic.
The latest assault comes months after four men were hanged for the brutal gang rape and murder of a student on a bus in Delhi in 2012 -- a case that came to symbolise the nation's problem with sexual violence.
Women in India continue to be subjected to alarming levels of sexual abuse.
An average of 87 rape cases were reported every day last year, according to the latest data released Tuesday by the National Crime Records Bureau, but large numbers are thought to go unreported.
The bureau reported an increase of more than seven percent in the number of crimes against women in 2019 compared to the previous year.
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