Members of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union shout slogans during a protest against a gang rape of two teenage girls in Katra village, outside the Uttar Pradesh state house, in New Delhi, India, on May 30, 2014. / Manish Swarup, AP
LUCKNOW, India (AP) - Facing relentless media attention and growing criticism for a series of rapes, state officials in north India fired two police officers Friday for failing to investigate the disappearance of two teenage cousins, who were gang-raped and later found hanging from a tree.
But in a country with a long history of tolerance for sexual violence, the firings also came as the state's top official mocked journalists for asking about the attack.
"Aren't you safe? You're not facing any danger, are you?" Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said in Lucknow, the state capital. "Then why are you worried? What's it to you?"
The gang rape, with video of the girls' corpses hanging from a mango tree and swaying gently in a breeze, was the top story Friday on India's relentless 24-hour news stations. But in just the past few days, Uttar Pradesh has also seen the mother of a rape victim brutally attacked and a 17-year-old girl gang-raped by four men.
Uttar Pradesh is India's most populous state, with nearly 200 million people.
Official statistics say about 25,000 rapes are committed every year in India, a nation of 1.2 billion people. But activists say that number is very low, since women are often pressed by family or police to stay quiet about sexual assaults.
Indian police and politicians, who for decades had done little about sexual violence, have faced growing public anger since the December 2013 gang-rape and murder of a young woman on a moving New Delhi bus, an attack that sparked national outrage over the treatment of women.
On Friday, the state's former chief minister lashed out at the ruling government.
"There is no law and order in the state," said Mayawati, who uses only one name. "It is the law of the jungle."
Hours later, the chief minister ordered that suspects in the attack be tried in special "fast track" courts, to get around India's notoriously slow judicial system.
The girls, who were 14 and 15, were raped in the tiny village of Katra, about 180 miles (300 kilometers) from Lucknow.
Police say they disappeared Tuesday night after going into fields near their home to relieve themselves, since their house has no toilet.
The father of one girl went to police that night to report them missing, but he said they refused to help.
When the bodies were discovered the next day, angry villagers silently protested the police inaction by refusing to allow the bodies to be cut down from the tree.
The villagers allowed authorities to take down the corpses after the first arrests were made Wednesday. Police arrested two police officers and two men from the village, and were searching for three more suspects.
The girls were Dalits, from the community once known as "untouchables" in India's ancient caste system. The fired policemen and the men accused in the attack are Yadavs, a low-caste community that dominates that part of Uttar Pradesh. The chief minister is from the same caste.
On Thursday, officials suspended two local police officers for ignoring the father's pleas for help. They were fired Friday.
Top state official Anil Kumar Gupta said the two policemen had been charged with criminal conspiracy for refusing to file a complaint or take any action.
Meanwhile, the chief minister's mocking comments to reporters were not a surprise to many in India.
Last month, Yadav's father - a former chief minister and head of the state's ruling party - told an election rally that the party opposed a law calling for gang rapists to be executed.
"Boys will be boys," Mulayam Singh Yadav said. "They make mistakes."
Kavita Krishnan, a women's rights activist, said such comments make clear to police that rape isn't taken seriously by officials.
She called the chief minister's Friday comments "a trivialization of rape."
While sexual assaults are reported across India, there have been a string of high-profile attacks in just the past few days in Uttar Pradesh.
On Thursday, police arrested three men for brutally attacking the mother of a rape victim after she refused to withdraw her complaint.
The attack, in the town of Etawah, followed the May 11 rape of the woman's teenage daughter. A local man was arrested after the mother filed a complaint with authorities.
Five men - including the father, a brother and a cousin of the man accused in the rape - followed the victim's mother away from her house on Monday and beat her relentlessly, demanding she drop the accusation, said Dinesh Kumar, the town's police superintendent. The mother was in critical condition in a hospital, with numerous broken bones and internal injuries.
Police arrested three men Thursday for the attack and were looking for two others.
On Wednesday, a 17-year-old woman was attacked in a field and raped by four men in southwestern Uttar Pradesh, police said. One man has been arrested.
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