NEW DELHI – An Indian court convicted four men Tuesday of the fatal gang rape of a young woman on a moving New Delhi bus, an attack that set off waves of protests and gave voice to years of anger over the treatment of women.
The men, convicted on all the counts against them, including rape and murder, now face the possibility of hanging. The sentences are expected to be handed down Wednesday.
Judge Yogesh Khanna said in his verdict that the men, who tricked the young woman and a male friend of hers into boarding a bus they were driving, had committed “murder of a helpless person.”
The parents of the victim, who cannot be identified under Indian law, 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 Dec. 16 attack 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.
The men, most of them from a crowded New Delhi neighborhood of hand-made brick shanties filled by migrants from desperately poor rural villages, 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 top. 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 Tuesday’s verdict was read.
It wasn’t late. It wasn’t a bad neighborhood. The bus, by all appearances, was just a way for the two to get home.
Instead, the attackers beat the friend into submission, held down the woman and repeatedly raped her. They penetrated her with a metal rod, causing severe internal injuries that led to her death two weeks later.
The woman, who was from another poor migrant family, had recently finished her exams for a physiotherapy degree. Her father earned a little over $200 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. One, Mukesh Singh, occasionally drove the bus and cleaned it. Another, Vinay Sharma, was a 20-year-old assistant at a gym and the only one to graduate from high school. Akshay Thakur, 28, occasionally worked as a driver’s helper on the bus. Pawan 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 Tuesday. 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.
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 victimized 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.”