Eight Hindu men accused in the gang rape and killing of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in India's Jammu and Kashmir state have pleaded not guilty in their first court appearance.

Monday's court appearance comes as angry protests over the case spread across the country.

The child's battered body was found in a forest in January, a week after she went missing while grazing her family's ponies.

Police say the accused men, all Hindus, planned the child's kidnapping for over a month as part of a plan to scare her Muslim nomadic tribe away from the area.

Police said the child was sedated and held captive at a Hindu temple where she was repeatedly raped before being strangled and bludgeoned to death.

Protests erupted over the case earlier this month, after a former government official and a police officer who was investigating her parents' complaint about their missing daughter were named in the police charge sheet.

Others are accused of trying to cover up the crime, and four police officers have been arrested so far, said Deepika Singh Rajawat, a lawyer representing the victim's family.

External Link: Mr Prime Minister, your silence is unacceptable. 1. What do YOU think about the growing violence against women & children? 2. Why are accused rapists and murderers protected by the state? India is waiting.

Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi held a candlelit vigil at India Gate in New Delhi, the same site where thousands of people demonstrated in 2012 against a brutal gang rape in the capital.

"Like millions of Indians, my heart hurts tonight," Mr Gandhi wrote on Twitter after addressing an estimated 5,000 people at Thursday's midnight vigil.

"India simply cannot continue to treat its women the way it does."

Sexual violence remains a taboo in India, and survivors fear stigma or retribution if they report attacks.

But the number of cases that police register has been steadily rising following national outrage at the fatal gang rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi in 2012.

Nearly 35,000 rape cases were reported to Indian police and 7,000 convictions were made in 2015, both increasing by about 40 per cent from three years earlier, according to government data.



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