NEW DELHI -- An Indian court on Tuesday found guilty four men accused of raping and murdering a 23-year old physiotherapy student on a moving bus in December, in a case that has sparked tougher laws, fast-track courts, public outrage and extensive soul-searching.
The four, who face the death penalty, are scheduled to appear at a sentencing hearing Wednesday. India rarely executes death row prisoners, but the government has faced intense pressure to hang the men.
The court found the four, age 19 to 35, guilty on all 13 charges they faced, including rape, murder, conspiracy and kidnapping. The case was among the most exhaustive in recent memory, with over 100 witnesses called for dozens of hearings held over seven months.
"Gang Rape: Judgment Day," said a headline on one local TV network Tuesday. "1 Verdict, a Billion Prayers," said another.
The four accused -- unemployed Akshay Kumar Singh, gym instructor Vinay Sharma, fruit-seller Pawan Gupta, and driver Mukesh Singh -- have denied involvement. "This is not a fair trial," said A.P. Singh, a lawyer for the defense, speaking to reporters outside the court after the verdict. "We will challenge it in the High Court. They should have been acquitted but they have been framed under political pressure. They were poor, helpless boys."
The incident sparked such passion, and days of violent protest across India, in part because the victim embodied the Indian dream. Born into a poor family in impoverished northern Uttar Pradesh state, she attended college using proceeds from land her family sold for her education, studied hard and moved to the capital to pursue a promising career.
On Dec. 16, after watching the film "Life of Pi" at an upscale mall, she and a male friend were lured aboard what they thought was an ordinary commuter bus around 9:30 p.m. As the bus rode through some of New Delhi's poshest neighborhoods, the pair was assaulted with iron rods, their possessions were stolen and she was gang raped by five men and a juvenile.
The bus driver and his friends then tossed them into the road naked, reportedly trying to run them over as they drove off to prevent them from talking to the police. She died of internal injuries two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.
The case focused a spotlight on the government's lumbering response and the plight of women in India, particularly in large cities. Many women reported feeling intimidated by a society that has frequently treated sexual harassment as the woman's fault, even encouraging them to marry their rapist to avoid shaming their families.
India's National Crime Records Bureau said in 2011 that a rape takes place every 20 minutes in India. In a 2012 survey, two-thirds of women living in New Delhi reported being sexually harassed in the last two years.
Though rapes occur in every country, women's rights groups say social attitudes in India are particularly disconcerting, reflected in statements that the victim could have avoided trouble by wearing different clothes or staying cloistered at home, or refering to her attackers as "brother" -- all suggestions made by politicians and religious figures after the December attack.
The case also highlighted India's creaky court and police systems. Although Tuesday's verdict was delivered within nine months, most criminal cases, particularly those involving sexual assaults, take years to resolve or are dropped completely.
One of those convicted, who was 17 at the time of the assault, will be released in 2015 after serving three years, the maximum penalty for a minor. The minor's sentence has sparked a debate over whether juveniles accused in serious crimes should be charged as adults. The victim's family has said it wants him to hang.
A sixth suspect, driver Ram Singh, reportedly hung himself in prison although his family alleges that he was murdered.
The case inspired a new law that increased the minimum penalty in gang-rape cases to 20 years from 10, added life sentences for attacks that leave the victim in a vegetative state and made acid attacks, stalking and voyeurism distinct crimes.
Critics counter that India has many great laws it often fails to implement. Women's groups have also criticized the new law, which came too late to apply in this case, for not including penalties for marital rape.
Even as India has sought to ramp up foreign tourist visits to earn much-needed foreign exchange, a trade group reported that 70% of the tour operators it surveyed in the first quarter of 2013 had seen bookings canceled, especially by women from Britain, the U.S., Canada and Australia.
The case has made prosecutors and police in New Delhi, dubbed the "rape capital of India," more responsive to sex crimes, women's rights groups say, although some question whether the commitment will last once the political spotlight dims.
Released Tuesday, a U.N. study of attitudes by men in several Asia-Pacific countries, including China and Bangladesh but not India, found that almost half of the 10,000 men surveyed reported being physically or sexually violent toward their female partners. Nearly a quarter said they'd raped a woman or girl.
Of those who admitted to rape, over 70% said they did so with impunity, having never faced problems with the law. Most added that they felt entitled to have sex, whether or not the woman consented.