NEW DELHI — Four men convicted of a gang rape and murder were sentenced Friday to die by hanging, a decision met with satisfaction on the part of the victim’s parents and cheers from the crowd outside the courthouse, where some held up makeshift nooses and pictures of hanging bodies.
The men — a fruit vendor, a bus attendant, a gym handyman and an unemployed man — were found guilty Tuesday of raping the New Delhi woman on a moving bus in December, penetrating her with a metal rod and inflicting grave internal injuries and leaving her on the roadside.
The country was riveted by the story of the 23-year-old woman, who died of her injuries two weeks after the attack. Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets to demand tougher policing and prosecution of sex crimes.
Until the last minute, it was unclear whether this would lead to death sentences in a country where liberal and populist impulses have strained against one another for decades, reserving the death sentences for “the rarest of rare cases.”
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“This is the beginning of freedom for Indian women today,” said Raman Deep Kaur, 38, a cosmetologist. “Today we are free, because these men are going to be killed.”
It is not clear the men will be executed soon — or at all. The order must be confirmed by India’s High Court, and the condemned may appeal to the High Court, Supreme Court and the president, a process that can drag on for years.
Although there are 477 people on death row in India, three have been executed in the past nine years.
Sadashiv Gupta, a defense lawyer for one of the men, Pawan Gupta, said he had reassured his client the ruling would very likely be commuted to life imprisonment.
During the trial, defense lawyers invoked the “rarest-of-the rare” language laid out in a 1980 Supreme Court decision that overturned a death sentence. They also invoked mitigating circumstances, such as the young age and poverty of the defendants, or the fact they had been drinking, undercutting the notion the crime was premeditated.
Judge Yogesh Khanna rejected those arguments, saying this crime embodied “the rarest of the rare,” and invoked the possibility of a larger wave of violence against women. “In these times when crimes against women are on the rise, the court cannot turn a blind eye to this gruesome act,” he said, according to reporters in the courtroom.
At this, one of the defendants, Vinay Sharma, 20, began sobbing.
A.P. Singh, who defended two of the men, called the decision “completely unfair,” adding: “I will contest this case until the last moments of my life.”
Defense arguments were drowned out by cries for execution, including from the victim, who before her death told a court official her attackers “should be burned alive.” The victim’s father, who cannot be named under Indian laws guarding his daughter’s identity as a rape victim, said of the sentence: “I am very happy our girl has got justice.”
Protesters have congregated regularly outside the courthouse, chanting, “Hang the rapists,” and Friday they turned their wrath on the defense lawyers, forcing one to rush from the crowd.
The victim and a male friend — they were not romantically involved — were coming home last December from an evening showing of the movie “Life of Pi” when the men lured them into the bus. They beat the friend, held the woman down and took turns raping her and inflicting the massive internal injuries that led to her death.
In addition to Sharma, the gym handyman; and Gupta, 19, the fruit vendor; the men sentenced Friday are Mukesh Singh, 26, the bus attendant; and Akshay Thakur, 28, who was jobless.
Although there were six men on the bus when the woman was attacked, two were not sentenced Friday. One defendant, Ram Singh, 33, hanged himself with his bedsheet in his New Delhi prison cell in March. A second defendant, who has not been named because he is a juvenile, was sentenced last month to three years in a detention center, the heaviest sentence possible in India’s juvenile-justice system.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.