NEW DELHI – Sentencing arguments will be heard Wednesday for four men facing the death penalty after an Indian court them found guilty of raping and murdering a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in December. The closely watched case has angered, shocked and electrified the nation, sparking tougher laws, fast-track courts, violent public protests and extensive soul-searching.
Judge Yogesh Khanna ruled Tuesday in a 230-page decree that the four defendants, ages 19 to 35, were guilty on all 13 counts, including rape, murder and kidnapping. Another suspect reportedly killed himself in prison, although his parents claim it was murder, and the sixth was a juvenile at the time.
India rarely executes death-row prisoners, but the government is under enormous pressure after the verdict to hang the men, India’s preferred execution method. “This is a good day, but we’re not content,” the victim’s brother said in a telephone interview after the verdict. Under Indian law, the victim has not been named. “We’ll be satisfied when they’re all hung, including the juvenile.”
The case was among the more exhaustive in recent memory, involving over 100 witnesses, extensive forensic evidence and more than 115 hearings over seven months. “1 Verdict, a Billion Prayers,” said a headline on a local TV network.
The four defendants have denied involvement. “This is not a fair trial,” said A.P. Singh, a lawyer for the defense, who told reporters outside the court that his clients would appeal. “They should have been acquitted but they have been framed under political pressure.”
The case has sparked strong passion 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 with money from the sale of the family farm, 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 boarded what they assumed was a normal commuter bus, on which she was gang raped, and they were also assaulted with iron rods. Police say the gang then tossed them onto the road naked. She died of internal injuries two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.
The case highlighted the government’s lumbering response and the plight of women in India, which tends to rank near the bottom on international women’s status surveys. In 2011, New Delhi’s National Crime Records Bureau reported that a rape takes place in India every 20 minutes.
While rapes happen in every country, women’s rights groups say of particular concern is a common view in India that harassment is the victim’s fault, easily avoided if she had worn different clothes, submissively called her attackers “brother” or cloistered herself at home, suggestions made by politicians and religious leaders after the attack.
Two-thirds of women living in Delhi, the metropolitan region that encompasses the capital of New Delhi, reported being sexually harassed in the past two years, a 2012 survey found. “In Delhi, men often stare, try and touch me, brush against my body,” said Reena Bisht, 21, who recently moved here from a village in northern Uttrakhand state. “I’ve learned to move away and avoid eye contact. Sometimes I tell them to keep away.”
The case also highlighted India’s ill-trained police and creaky court system. While Tuesday’s verdict was delivered within nine months, most criminal cases take years or are dropped completely. The conviction rate for rape cases is 15% in New Delhi and 26% nationally.
“There are over 90,000 cases pending,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of New Delhi’s Center for Social Research, a think tank. “These investigation methods and judgment system need to be applicable to other cases, that’s my hope.”
Even as the four defendants face execution, the juvenile received a three-year sentence, the maximum applicable, sparking a debate over whether juveniles should be charged as adults in extreme cases.
The case sparked a new law that increases penalties for gang rapes and defined acid attacks, stalking and voyeurism. Critics said India has many well-intentioned laws that aren’t implemented, while women’s groups criticized it for not considering marital rape.
The case has dented India’s international reputation. Earlier this year, a trade group reported that 70% of the tour operators it surveyed in the first quarter of 2013 saw bookings canceled, especially involving women from Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia.
It has also made prosecutors and police in Delhi, dubbed the “rape capital of India,” more responsive to crimes against women, gender-rights groups say.
Some question, however, whether society is on a witch hunt. Sandesh Chopedekar, executive director of the Men’s Rights Assn. in Pune, said many innocent men are being prosecuted. “Society is headed in the wrong direction,” he said. “Whatever a woman says becomes evidence.”
The U.N. released a study Tuesday of attitudes in several Asia-Pacific countries, including China and Bangladesh but not India. It found that nearly half of the 10,000 men surveyed reported being physically or sexually violent toward a female partner, while nearly a quarter said they’d raped a girl or woman.
Of those who admitted to rape, over 70% said they did so with legal impunity, most adding that they felt entitled to have sex, whether or not the woman consented.
Tanvi Sharma in the New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.