By Mark Magnier
NEW DELHI -- India’s Supreme Court has reserved the death penalty for “rarest of rare” cases, and most are commuted to life imprisonment. But demonstrators gathered outside a Delhi courtroom demanded that four men sentenced to death Friday in the December rape and murder of a physiotherapy student on a moving bus be hanged soon.
Pawan Kumar, a 52-year-old textile shopkeeper, said he would be happy to do the honors.
“They deserve capital punishment,” the northern Uttar Pradesh state resident said. “The crime is unpardonable. My application to be hangman for Delhi jails is pending with the Inspector General.”
The brutal assault hit a nerve in India. Violent demonstrations jarred politicians and bureaucrats into action, leading to fast-track laws, amended police procedures and a new law that stiffened penalties for gang rape and other sexual crimes. The law didn’t apply in this case since it passed after the attack.
Judge Yogesh Khanna announced Friday’s sentences in a one-paragraph order, a contrast with his 237-page verdict a few days earlier.
"In these times when crime against women is on the rise, courts cannot turn a blind eye,” he said.
The four death-row convicts, ages 19 to 35, were among six apprehended in the case. A fifth reportedly committed suicide in prison, although his family claimed he had been killed. The sixth, then a juvenile, was given three years in a rehabilitation facility, the maximum punishment, prompting some to call for those under age 18 to be treated as adults in extreme cases.
“Hang All Rapists” said one sign with a small crooked face inside a noose, held aloft by a demonstrator Friday.
“Rape Is Not a Child Play So, No Rapist Can Be a Child” said another.
Nearby, a painter in a purple-striped shirt depicted in acrylics what appeared to be a bloodied figure in white shorts, explaining to reporters it was a Hindu god eating the souls of the convicted.
India executes convicts by hanging, in keeping with traditions honed during the British Empire, although Britain conducted its last hanging in 1964.
The four sentenced Friday -- unemployed Akshay Thakur, gym instructor Vinay Sharma, fruit seller Pawan Gupta and driver Mukesh Singh -- vowed to appeal.
The 23-year old victim, who died of massive internal injuries two weeks after the attack, has not been named under Indian law.
Women’s rights activists are divided on whether capital punishment should apply in horrendous crimes such as this one, said Indu Agnihotri, director of New Delhi’s Center for Women's Development Studies, a think tank. But most agree on the need for fair and speedy judgment in a nation where justice is creaky and a woman’s life and marriage prospects can be ruined by the stigma of a rape, she added.
According to human rights watchdog Amnesty International, India is one of 58 countries worldwide that carry out death sentences, against 140 that have abolished them in law or practice.
India provides few details about its execution policy. In 2007, it reported having executed 52 people since 1947, although civic groups believe the actual figure is far higher.
Various superstitions have cropped up in India about hanging. Wardens conducting jail-house tours have taken to warning visitors not to chip away wood bits from the gallows, which are believed to bring good luck and to help school results. Some also believe strands from the noose have magical powers.
“I have no idea from where this thinking comes from,” said Sunil Gupta, law officer with Delhi Prisons.
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