Eight men have entered not guilty pleas following the rape and killing of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in India.
The men were detained after the girl’s body was found battered in a forest in January, a week after she went missing while grazing her family’s ponies.
The men – all Hindu – are accused of planning the child’s kidnapping for more than a month in a bid to scare her Muslim nomadic tribe away from where they live, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Police said the girl was repeatedly raped at a Hindu temple, where she was sedated and held captive. She was later strangled and bludgeoned to death.
The case has sparked protests across the country and made headlines last week when thousands of members of Hindu radical group Hindu Ekta Manch – or the Hindu Unity Platform – marched in support of the accused men.
Hundreds of lawyers from the local bar association also tried to prevent police entering a court to put their investigation before a judge, saying the men accused were innocent.
Six men – including two police officers – are accused of being directly involved in the attacks on the girl. One of the policemen also allegedly joined in the search for her body.
Two other officers were arrested, accused of attempting to destroy evidence.
Since the case came to light, at least two politicians from India’s Hindu nationalist ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have spoken in support of the men accused.
Choudhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga, who attended a rally defending the men, resigned after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to bring those committing rape to justice.
“They have resigned because of the way the entire thing has been presented across the country. They have been victimised,” said Balbir Singh, a spokesman for Mr Singh.
A political storm now appears to be brewing after Mr Modi addressed the growing unrest in India over violence against women and girls.
He reportedly said: “I want to assure the country that no culprit will be spared, complete justice will be done. Our daughters will definitely get justice.”
Protests have also been fuelled by the alleged rape of a 17-year-old girl last year in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
A woman called Shashi Singh, along with BJP politician Kuldeep Singh Sengar, who has been accused of raping the teenager, were arrested by police this week.