Thu May 30, 2013 5:24am IST

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – An international conference on women’s health and empowerment currently taking place in Malaysia has sparked controversy in India after it allowed Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman P.J. Kurien, who is facing accusations of raping a girl, to speak at the event.

Organisers of the Women Deliver 2013 conference said they were unaware that P.J. Kurien was linked to a high profile case involving the trafficking and multiple rape of a 16-year-old girl in southern India in 1996.

Kurien has denied all allegations.

“Women Deliver takes the issues of violence against women and rape very seriously. We were unaware that Indian parliamentarian P.J. Kurien is facing allegations of rape,” said a statement from Women Deliver in an email sent to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“While we cannot comment on the specific allegations, had we known of the controversy, we would not have permitted P.J. Kurien to speak at the side event. Addressing violence against women is central to our mission as an organisation and one of the focus areas of this global conference.”

The Women Deliver conference, which is taking in place from May 28-30 in Kuala Lumpur, brings together thousands of participants from all over the world to focus on issues such as reproductive rights and violence against women.

Speakers at the event include philanthropist Melinda Gates, humanitarian and former minister for education in Mozambique Graca Machel, head of the U.N. Population Fund Babatunde Osotimehin, head of the U.N. Development Fund Helen Clark, and Chelsea Clinton of the Clinton Foundation as well as many other prominent personalities in the field of women’s development.

Kurien, who is member of Congress party which heads the coalition government, was named in the controversial case which occurred 17 years ago where a young girl was abducted by a bus conductor and trafficked for sex in Kerala. It is alleged that she was raped by 40 men over a period of 42 days.

The victim named Kurien as one of the accused but previous investigations by the police found no evidence. The victim, now 35, recently renewed her legal battle and a Kerala court has ordered for a fresh investigation into the case.

News of Kurien addressing the conference spread on social network site Twitter on Tuesday and Wednesday, with many Indians criticising both the government for allowing him to represent India, and the event organisers for not checking his background. A petition condemning his presence at the event has also been circulated and has over 100 signatures.

“We condemn the Government of India’s decision to permit P.J. Kurien who is a rape accused … to represent the Indian government at an international conference which is focused on women and girls health issues,” said the petition.

“We demand that Women Deliver do not allow P.J. Kurien to speak or participate in any of the meetings or platform in the conference. It is surprising they do not check the credentials of dignitaries invited on a such a prestigious international forum on the issues of women’s health,” it added.

(Additional reporting by D. Jose in Thiruvananthapuram)