- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 10, 2011

NEW DELHI - India’s top court recommended the death penalty for perpetrators of “honor killings,” calling the practice “barbaric” and “feudal” in a ruling cheered Tuesday by activists who hope it will inspire opposition to a crime seen as anathema to a democratic nation.

Most victims have been young adults who fell in love or married against their families’ wishes. In some cases, village councils ordered couples killed who married within the same clan or outside their caste. While there are no official figures, an independent study found around 900 people killed each year in India for defying their elders.

The Supreme Court on Monday affirmed a life sentence imposed for a man convicted of killing his daughter but added a warning: “People planning to perpetrate honor killings should know that the gallows await them.”

The court said tough measures are needed to stamp out India’s caste system and the violence and harassment young people faced as they tried to break out of the shackles of centuries-old social practices.

“It is time to stamp out these barbaric, feudal practices which are a slur on our nation,” Justice Markandeya Katju said. “This is necessary as a deterrent for such outrageous, uncivilized behavior.”

Kirti Singh, a women’s rights lawyer in New Delhi, hailed the ruling as an important first step.

“The government should now speed up legislation to punish not just killings, but all forms of social and economic crimes ordered by village councils against young adults wanting to get married to a partner of their choice,” she said.

In India the death penalty is given only in the “rarest of rare” cases. While it is not unprecedented for a lower court to give a death sentence in an honor killing case, the nation's top court had yet to weigh in on the issue.

Justices Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra wrote in their joint statement that honor killings fall within the “rarest of rare” category and deserve to be a capital crime.

The court’s ruling rejected an appeal by Bhagwan Dass, who argued he was innocent of strangling his daughter, Seema, in 2006 after she walked out of a troubled marriage and had an affair with a cousin.

Honor killings have increased in recent years, especially in northern India. With young, educated and empowered Indians with fraying ties to caste or religious divisions demanding the right to choose their spouse, some village leaders and horrified relatives have fought back violently.

Last month, the court directed police and district administrators across the country to offer protection to any couple marrying outside their caste or religion and to start criminal action against those who threaten or harass them.

A court in the state of Haryana meted out the first “honor killing” death sentence last year when it convicted five people in the gruesome murders of young newlyweds.

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