NEW DELHI: An Indian court convicted four men Tuesday in 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 were convicted on all the counts against them, including rape and murder, and 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 23-year-old rape victim and a male friend of hers into boarding the bus they were driving, had committed “murder of a helpless person.”
The parents of the woman, 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, where women have long talked quietly of enduring everything from sexual comments to public groping to rape, but where they would often face blame themselves if they complained publicly.
“Every girl at any age experiences this — harassment or rape. We don’t feel safe,” said law school graduate Rabia 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.”
The men, though, were also identified by the young woman’s friend, and police say they could 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 poor rural villages, were riding around the city in 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 also 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. The men can appeal their convictions.
While many activists heralded the changes that came with the case — more media reporting on sexual violence, education for police in how to treat rape victims — they note that women remain widely seen as second-class citizens in India. 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 blamed by their families and police, who deride them for inviting attacks. Activists say most rapes are simply kept secret, even from authorities, so that the woman and her family are not seen as tainted.
“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.”
The victim’s family was, in many ways, far different from most in India. Her parents had pushed her to go as far as possible in school, and even encouraged her to leave home for a better education, both seen as highly suspect in the conservative village culture that her parents were born into. They had saved for years to help pay her school fees, and made clear that her brother would not be favored.
And when she was raped, the only people they blamed were her rapists.
Their pain has been staggering.
“I always told my children: ‘If you study hard you can escape this poverty.’ All my life I believed this,” the mother told the AP in an interview earlier this year. “Now that dream has ended.”