One of the men convicted in the fatal gang rape of a young Indian woman called out his innocence Wednesday as police drove him into the courthouse where he and three others faced the possibility of death sentences. Minutes later, the prosecutor called for all four men to be hanged.
Judge Yogesh Khanna told the court during the hearing that the sentencing would take place at 2.30 P.M. on Friday.
It was not clear which of the four men was shouting, because his face was obscured behind the police van's heavy metal mesh, but he repeatedly called out, "I am innocent! I am innocent!" as the van drove past a scrum of reporters.
A court convicted the men Tuesday in the December gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a moving New Delhi bus, a brutal crime that galvanized public anger over the sexual violence faced by Indian women. The woman died two weeks after the attack.
The four face either life imprisonment or death by hanging. Calls for the men to be executed have grown increasingly loud, with everyone from the victim's parents to top political leaders demanding the men be sentenced to death.
On Wednesday, as their sentencing hearing began, prosecutor Dayan Krishnan called for the death penalty, saying "there can be nothing more diabolic than a helpless girl put through torture."
He said the crime shocked India's "collective conscience," and noted the police report showed the men pulled out some of the victim's body parts after savagely penetrating her with an iron rod.
The four men sat in in the back of the tiny courtroom in T-shirts or short-sleeved polo shirts, unshackled and with policemen holding them from both sides. They appeared impassive, though it was not clear how much they understood of the proceedings. English is the main language of India's court system but only one of the men, Vinay Sharma, speaks any English. They had no translator.
V.K. Sharma, a defense lawyer representing Pawan Gupta, a 19-year-old fruit vendor, asked for a sentence of life imprisonment, noting that Indian law calls for execution only in very exceptional cases.
The men's lawyers have long said they are innocent of rape and murder, though they have occasionally indicated some of the men may have been on the bus. They insist that any confessions had been coerced by police torture.
Sharma said Wednesday the crime may have happened "on the spur of the moment" and urged leniency for his client because of his age and because he had to support his impoverished family. He said Gupta did not join in the rape or in violating the victim with the rod.
The family of the victim watched from one row in front of the prisoners, close enough to touch one another.
In addition to their confessions, the men were identified by the woman's male friend who was with her on the night of the attack. The two were coming home from a movie when the men tricked them into boarding a bus they were joy-riding. They quickly beat the friend into submission, held the woman down and took turns raping her. They also penetrated her with the rod, causing severe internal injuries that led to her death.
The woman, who cannot be identified under Indian law, had been supported by her parents as she tried to climb into India's growing middle class. At the time of the rape, she was awaiting her exam results after finishing a degree in physiotherapy.
The defendants, like the victim, come from poor and ill-educated families. One, Mukesh Singh, occasionally drove the bus where the crime occurred and cleaned it.
Another, Vinay Sharma, was a 20-year-old assistant at a gym and the only one of the attackers to graduate from high school. Akshay Thakur, 28, occasionally worked as a driver's helper on the bus.
With them on the bus were two other men. Police say Ram Singh, 33, hanged himself in prison, though his family insists 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 he faced, three years in a reform home.
About two dozen protesters gathered Wednesday by the courthouse, calling for the four men to be executed.
"Hang All The Rapists" one sign urged.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now