NEW DELHI: All four men convicted of raping and murdering a 23-year-old woman in Delhi were sentenced to death on Friday, nine months after a crime whose savagery triggered furious protests across India and rare national debate about violence against women.
“Everybody got the death penalty,” defense lawyer A.P. Singh told reporters outside the Delhi courtroom, where dozens of police had formed a barricade to keep crowds back.
One of the four men sentenced to death by hanging, gym instructor Vinay Sharma, was dragged out of the court crying.
The victim, who was raped for an hour and tortured with an iron rod on a moving bus, became a symbol of the dangers women face in a country where a rape is reported on average every 21 minutes and acid attacks and cases of molestation are common.
“This has shocked the collective conscience of society,” Judge Yogesh Khanna told the court, referring to the attack.
The four men were sentenced to death despite their lawyers’ pleas to ignore popular and political pressure for a penalty handed down in only the “rarest of rare” cases.
Lawyer A.P. Singh, who represented two of the convicts in the trial, said hours before the sentencing that it would be “based on the emotions of the people”.
“This sentencing is under political pressure,” he said.
The sentencing capped a seven-month trial, often held behind closed doors, that was punctuated dramatically by a fifth defendant hanging himself in his jail cell. A sixth, who was under 18 at the time of the attack, was earlier sentenced to three years detention, the maximum allowed under juvenile law.
It was one of the biggest tests in years of India’s paradoxical attitude towards the death penalty.
The country’s judges hand down, on average, 130 death sentences every year but India has executed just three people in the past 17 years. Despite its apparent reluctance to carry out the sentences, last year India voted against a U.N. draft resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions.
In November, India ended what many human rights groups had interpreted as an undeclared moratorium on capital punishment when it executed a man convicted for the 2008 militant attack on the city of Mumbai. Three months later, it hanged a Kashmiri separatist for a 2001 militant attack on parliament.
“In the past year, India has made a full-scale retreat from its previous principled rejection of the death penalty,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
The hanging of the two militants came after a seven-year gap in executions, the last being a man who was convicted of raping and killing a schoolgirl in the city of Kolkata.