A court in India today sent four men convicted of the Delhi gang-rape to be hanged, declaring that the notorious crime that shocked the country was among the “rarest of rare”.
“These are the times when gruesome crimes against women have become rampant and courts cannot turn a blind eye to the need to send a strong deterrent message to the perpetrators of such crimes,” said the judge, Yogesh Khanna. “The increasing trend of crimes against women can be arrested only once the society realises that there will be no tolerance...”
He added: “Accordingly, the convicts be hanged by neck till they are dead.”
The four men - bus cleaner Akshay Kumar Singh, gym instructor Vinay Sharma, fruit-seller Pawan Gupta, and Mukesh Singh, who was unemployed – had faced either the death penalty or life imprisonment after they were found guilty of a dozen charges.
There was a small cheer outside the courtroom as the verdict was announced. Inside, Sharma reportedly broke down in tears. In a theatrical flourish beloved by Bollywood films, the judge apparently broke the nib of the pen, a step intended to underscore the gravity of the sentence.
The family of the 23-year-old physiotherapy student was escorted from the courtroom by police. The father, who looked stony-faced, later said: ‘This is the verdict we were waiting for. I can’t express my happiness when the judge said they would be hanged. I feel my daughter has now got justice.”
VK Anand, the lawyer for Mukesh Singh, said he would be appealing against both the verdict and the sentence. He claimed the court had wrongfully interpreted the evidence. “He has been very fair with the court. He has admitted he was driving the bus,” said the lawyer. Other lawyers claimed there had been political pressure heaped on the court.
Earlier this week, the prosecution had argued that the court should only award the death penalty.
“The court should give the maximum sentence otherwise the message will go to society that deviance of this nature will be tolerated,” said the chief prosecutor, Dayan Krishnan. “The test is ‘was the collective conscience shocked?'. There can be no better example than this case.”
During the seven-month trial, held in a specially established fast-track court, prosecutors said the men had lured the woman and a male friend onto an off-duty bus on the night of 16 December as the pair returned home from watching a movie.
As the men drove the bus through the streets of Delhi, they repeatedly raped and assaulted the 23-year-old before stripping her and her friend naked and throwing them from the vehicle. The bus was usually driven by Ram Singh, another of those originally charged but who was found hanging in his cell earlier this year.
The young woman’s friend, Awindra Pandey, who had been badly beaten, recovered from his injuries and was able to help the police. But the physiotherapy student died two weeks later in a hospital in Singapore where she had been sent for specialist emergency treatment.
Earlier this week, lawyers for the convicted men, who all pleaded not guilty, argued for leniency when it came to sentencing. Yet India’s home minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, made an unlikely political intervention, telling reporters that the death penalty was “assured” in the case.
The judge found the men guilty on at least 11 counts under the Indian penal code. These ranged from gang-rape and murder to conspiracy and dacoity.
India’s legal system allows for execution in what the Supreme Court calls “the rarest of the rare cases”. What defines those cases remains debated but the only executions in recent years have been of convicted terrorists.
The last non-terror related offender to be executed in India was Dhananjoy Chatterjee, a school janitor who was convicted of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Kolkata and hanged in August 2004.
In the judgment issued on Friday, the judge said the attack on the young woman, who was raped and beaten before metal bars were inserted inside her, represented “hair-rising, beastly and unparalleled behaviour”.
Activists said it was important to remember that anywhere up to 90 per cent of rape cases in India go unreported. They urged that the government and society take steps to work towards reform. “What is needed is a deep attitudinal and behavioural shift to enable women to live without fear of violence,” said Nisha Agrawal of Oxfam India.
Tara Rao, of Amnesty International India, said sending the men to the gallows would do nothing except provide short-term revenge. “There is no evidence that the death penalty is a particular deterrent to crime,” she said. “And its use will not eradicate violence against women in India.”