[New York Times] – Four men convicted of a brutal gang rape were sentenced Friday to death by hanging, a decision met with grim satisfaction from the victim’s parents and triumphant cheers from the crowd outside the courthouse, where some held up pictures of bodies in nooses.
The four men – a fruit vendor, a bus attendant, a gym handyman and an unemployed man – were found guilty on Tuesday of raping a young woman on a moving bus last December, penetrating her with a metal rod and inflicting grave internal injuries, then dumping her out on the roadside.
The country was riveted by the story of the woman, who died of her injuries two weeks later, and tens of thousands of people flooded the streets to demand tougher policing and prosecution of sex crimes. But until the last minute it was unclear whether this would lead to death sentences in a country where liberal and populist impulses have strained against one another for decades, reserving the death sentences for “the rarest of rare cases.”
The police had cordoned off the area and tied up a row of horses beside the Saket courthouseon Friday, braced to control the crowd if it erupted. India has executed only three people in the last nine years – two for terrorism, and one for the rape and murder of a young girl.
“For us, justice means death,” said Mohan Singh, the victim’s great-uncle, moments before the hearing began. “This family raised her with a lot of love. She will never come back.”
During the trial, defense attorneys invoked the “rarest of the rare” language laid out in a 1980 Supreme Court decision that overturned a death sentence. One cited the words of Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India’s independence movement: “God gives life and he alone can take it, not manmade courts.” They also invoked mitigating circumstances, such as young age and poverty of the defendants, or the fact that they had been drinking, undercutting the notion that the crime was premeditated.
But their arguments have been drowned out by cries for execution – including from the victim herself, who before her death told a court official that her attackers “should be burned alive.” Protesters have congregated regularly outside the courthouse, chanting “Hang the rapists,” and on Friday they turned their wrath on the defense attorneys, forcing one to rush from the crowd.
Rosy John, 62, a housewife watching the furor outside the courtroom this week, said her only objection to the death sentence was that it was too humane a punishment.
“After death, they will get freedom,” she said. “They should be tortured and given shocks their whole life. They have made so many people suffer, including their own families.”
Polls show that Indians remain ambivalent about using the death penalty, with 40 percent of respondents saying it should be abolished, according to a survey by CNN, IBN and The Hindu, a respected daily newspaper. Among the vocal opponents of using it in this case were a number of women’s rights groups.
The writer Nilanjana Roy warned that executions would circumvent the more difficult question of why Indian girls and women are so vulnerable to sexual violence, most often at the hands of people they know.
“A base but very human part of me would like them to suffer as much as they made that woman suffer,” she wrote in an editorial in The Hindu, going on to envision the result if convicted rapists were hanged consistently for a year: 10,000 neighbors, shopkeepers, tutors, grandfathers, fathers and brothers.
“I wish I could believe that this sort of mass public execution — if we agreed that this was the way forward — would do more than slake our collective need for vengeance,” Ms. Roy wrote. “But I don’t believe in fairy tales.”
Though there were six men on the bus when the woman was attacked, two were not sentenced on Friday. One defendant, Ram Singh, who was driving the bus at times during the assault, hanged himself with his bedsheet in his Delhi prison cell in March. A second defendant, who has not been named because he is a juvenile, was sentenced last month to three years in a detention center — the heaviest sentence possible in India’s juvenile justice system.
Four of the assailants had grown up in Ravidas camp, a warren of narrow lanes and makeshift houses on a roadside in South Delhi. Neighbors in the camp turned furiously on the defendants during the initial uproar over the rape, saying they had brought shame and dishonor to the community, and, nine months later, some are still livid.
“Only if they get strict punishment will men in the country change,” said Amravati Singh, 35, saying she hoped the defendants never saw Ravidas, or their families, again. But others said their feelings had mellowed during the nine months that have elapsed. Leelavati, 40, said she had known the men since they were children, and they were not as bad as they appeared in the press.
“The punishment should be for the crimes they committed,” she said. “They should not all be beaten with one stick to satisfy the public.”