Four convicted in fatal gang rape case
KATY DAIGLE, SHIVANI RAWAT, SANJEEV MIGLANI AND SRUTHI GOTTIPATI
An Indian court has convicted four men in the fatal gang rape of a young woman on a moving New Delhi bus, a case that set off waves of protests and gave voice to years of anger over the treatment of women.
Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta, and Mukesh Singh were convicted on all the counts against them today, including rape and murder, now face the possibility of hanging. The sentences are expected to be handed down tomorrow.
Reading out his verdict, Judge Yogesh Khanna said: "I convict all of the accused. They have been found guilty of gang rape, unnatural offences, destruction of evidence ... and for committing the murder of the helpless victim."
The parents of the 23-year-old rape victim had tears in their eyes as the verdicts were read. The mother, wearing a pink sari, sat just a few feet from the convicted men in a tiny courtroom jammed with lawyers, police and reporters.
Outside the courthouse, where dozens of protesters had gathered, a chant began quickly after the verdict: "Hang them! Hang them! Hang them!"
Protesters called the case a wake-up call for India.
''Every girl at any age experiences this - harassment or rape. We don't feel safe,'' said law school graduate Rapia Pathania.
''That's why we're here. We want this case to be an example for every other case that has been filed and will be filed.''
Lawyers for the men have insisted that the men were tortured - a common occurrence in India's chaotic criminal justice system - and that a handful of confessions, which were later retracted, were coerced.
A P Singh, who at times has worked as a lawyer for all the men, said they were innocent.
"These accused have been framed simply to please the public," he told reporters.
"This is not a fair trial."
But all the men were also identified by the young woman's friend, and police say they could also be seen on security cameras near the bus.
On December 16 the men were riding around the city on an off-duty bus when police say they came across the woman and her friend waiting at a bus stop.
The pair - by most accounts they were not romantically involved - were heading home after an evening showing of Life of Pi at a high-end mall just a short walk from the courthouse where today's verdict was read.
It was not late. It was not a bad neighborhood. The bus, by all appearances, was just a way for the two to get home.
As the bus drove through the streets of the capital, the men beat the friend into submission and held down and repeatedly raped and tortured the victim with a metal bar before dumping her and her friend, naked and semi-conscious, on the road. She died in a Singapore hospital two weeks later of severe internal injuries.
Indian law prohibits naming the victim, who worked in a call centre and had recently finished her exams for a physiotherapy degree. Local media have dubbed her Nirbhaya - a Hindi word meaning fearless.
The woman was from a poor migrant family. Her father earned a little over US$200 (NZ$249) a month as an airport baggage handler. She was, the family hoped, their path to the bottom rungs of India's growing middle class.
The attackers, like the woman, came from poor and ill-educated families. They mostly lived in a crowded New Delhi neighborhood of hand-made brick shanties filled by migrants from desperately poor rural villages.
Singh occasionally drove the bus and cleaned it. Sharma was a 20-year-old assistant at a gym and the only one to graduate from high school. Thakur, 28, occasionally worked as a driver's helper on the bus. Gupta, 19, was a fruit seller.
With them during the attack were two other men: Ram Singh, 33, who police say hanged himself in prison, though his family insist he was murdered. He was the brother of Mukesh Singh, who was convicted. Another man - an 18-year-old who was a juvenile at the time of the attack and cannot be identified under Indian law - was convicted in August and will serve the maximum sentence: Three years in a reform home.
The case resonated with thousands of urban Indians who took to the streets in fury after the attack. The victim's path through education onto the first rungs of middle-class life seemed to epitomise the aspirations of millions of young women in the world's second most populous nation.
The brutality of the attack shocked even in India, where newspapers daily publish a grim litany of sex crimes against women.
India is the worst place among G20 countries to be a woman, according to a global poll last year by TrustLaw, a legal news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Facing public protests and political pressure after the attack, the government reformed some of its antiquated laws on sexual violence, creating fast-track courts to avoid the painfully long rape trials that can easily last over a decade. The trial of the four men, which took about seven months, was astonishingly fast by Indian standards.
But women remain widely seen as second-class citizens in India, burdens to families who must pay immense dowries to get them married. Girls get less medical care and less education than boys, studies show. Millions of female fetuses are statistically "missing" because of illegal sex-selective abortions.
Victims of sexual assault, meanwhile, often find themselves victimised by their families and police, who deride them for inviting attacks.
"We can celebrate this particular case. But total change is a much larger issue," said Rebecca John, supreme court lawyer and prominent advocate for women in India.
"As we celebrate this case, let us mourn for the other cases that are not highlighted."
'NOT LIKE NORMAL'
Police constable Naresh Chand, who led the four men away from the court after the verdict, said they were subdued.
"It was not like normal today. They are usually whispering among themselves, even smiling. Today they were quiet."
The verdict capped a seven-month trial, often held behind closed doors, that was punctuated by the fifth defendant hanging himself. The trial was astonishingly fast by Indian standards.
After the verdict, Mukesh Singh's mother, a frail woman in a peach and pink sari, fell to the floor crying outside the court and clutched the feet of his lawyer, V K Anand.
Pawan's lawyer said his client was tearful as the verdict was read out.
In the narrow-laned slum where the men met to drink alcohol and eat chicken before leaving in the bus to find the victim on the night of the attack, neighbours and relatives were glued to television sets awaiting the ruling.
"Now that they are proven guilty, they must be hanged. There can not be any other option," said student Rajesh Singh, a resident of the Ravidass Camp slum.
- AP and Reuters