NEW DELHI, Sept 13 (Reuters) : Four men were sentenced to death on Friday for fatally raping a young woman on a bus last December in an attack that triggered angry protests and widespread calls for the execution of her attackers.
Judge Yogesh Khanna, who convicted the men for gang rape and ”cold-blooded” murder earlier this week, rejected their lawyers' plea for a lighter sentence.
“Everybody got the death penalty,” said one of the defence lawyers, AP Singh, outside the courtroom.
Prosecutors had sought the “harshest punishment” to be given to bus cleaner Akshay Kumar Singh, gym instructor Vinay Sharma, fruit-seller Pawan Gupta, and unemployed Mukesh Singh for the murder of the woman, to send a signal to society that such attacks would not be tolerated.
The four, together with another man and a teenager, had lured the woman, a 23-year-old trainee physiotherapist, and a male friend onto a bus. The woman was then repeatedly raped and tortured with a metal bar. Her injuries were so severe that she died two weeks later.
One of the five men arrested in connection with the attack committed suicide in prison in March, while the teenager was sentenced to three years in a reformatory last month, the maximum sentence that be given to juveniles under Indian law.
Defence counsel Singh had urged the judge to ignore the clamour for the death penalty, which he said was a ”primitive and cold-blooded and simplistic” response.
Khanna's ruling still has to be ratified by the Delhi High Court, and the four men can appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. The appeals process could take years, lawyers said.
If the courts confirm the sentences, the final decision will lie with the president, who has the power to grant clemency.
The death penalty should be imposed only in the “rarest of rare” cases, according to a Supreme Court ruling in the early 1980s. But opponents, including former High Court judges, say the reality is quite different.
India has executed just three people in the past 17 years, although judges hand down on average 130 death sentences every year.
In November, India ended what many human rights groups had interpreted as an undeclared moratorium on capital punishment when it executed a militant convicted for the 2008 militant attack on Mumbai. Three months later, it hanged a man from the Kashmir region for a 2001 militant attack on parliament.
The victim's parents had said their daughter's dying wish was for her attackers to be “burned alive”.
Indian courts sentenced 1,455 prisoners to death between 2001 and 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. During the same period, sentences for 4,321 prisoners were commuted to life imprisonment.
There are 477 people on death row. Many have been there for years.
Human rights groups have been alarmed, however, by the vigour with which President Pranab Mukherjee, who was sworn into office in July 2012, has acted in clearing the backlog of clemency pleas. He has rejected 11, confirming the death penalty for 17 people.
Retired Delhi High Court judge RS Sodhi attributes the country's low execution rate to former Indian presidents being ”too soft”, wary of any backlash from what he described as a divided public.
Sodhi, who said he sentenced five people to death during his time on the bench, now opposes the death penalty.
“A life sentence is the biggest sentence you can give. Imagine rotting for the rest of your life in jail,” he said.
It is a view echoed by some women's rights groups and legal experts who oppose executing the physiotherapist's attackers. Others invoke the Gandhian principle that“an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.
But top politicians, including interior minister Sushilkumar Shinde, had said the death penalty is assured in the case. Such comments have been seen by some as adding to pressure on the court to make a populist ruling to satisfy the public outrage over the attack.