NEW DELHI — A fast-track court in the Indian capital has found four men guilty in last year’s brutal gang rape and killing of a young woman that rocked the country and sparked massive demonstrations.
Calls for justice were heard on the streets of India in the days that followed the December 16 attack on the 23-year old student.
On Tuesday, nearly nine months after she died of severe internal injuries - four of the six (Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, Mukesh Singh) accused in the young woman’s gang rape and murder were found guilty. They have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and their lawyer says they will appeal the verdict.
A fifth suspect, Ram Singh, was found hanging in his high-security jail cell in March. And the sixth accused, who was a juvenile at the time of the attack, was sentenced to three years last month.
The woman’s family say justice will only be done when the men receive the death penalty for their crime.
The woman’s father tells Indian media that “if the men are hanged, then others will get the message and not commit such crimes. They will think twice about it.”
The woman, called “Nirbhaya” or "fearless" by the Indian public and media, was returning home from a movie with a male friend in New Delhi when they accepted a ride on a private bus. The details of what followed the night of December 16 shocked the nation. The woman was repeatedly raped and tortured with an iron rod, her friend badly beaten. Both were thrown off the bus. The young physiotherapy student died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.
The brutal attack triggered weeks of protests, some violent, as demonstrators called for tougher measures to protect women against such crimes.
The government responded by setting up special fast-track courts in the capital to try sexual offenses and passing new anti-rape laws that also made stalking, voyeurism and other forms of sexual harassment punishable with prison terms.
But many women, like 40-year-old Shardha Mahesh, say not much has changed in the last year despite the media attention and public reaction to the gang rape. The New Delhi housekeeper says she still feels unsafe while going to and from work.
She says she “gets touched and pushed while riding the bus and is afraid to leave the house after 8 p.m.” Mahesh adds she “does not believe that women are any safer now and that even if a woman is accosted while walking alone at night, no one will come to her aid.”
Others are skeptical of any change in a deeply patriarchal society, where police officers have been known to be unsympathetic and unresponsive to crimes against women.
New Delhi’s new police commissioner, B.S. Bassi, whose force came under criticism for its handling of the attack, told reporters Tuesday the case has helped implement change.
“In a way you can say it is a watershed, there is no doubt about that. We will like to learn lessons from anything," said Bassi. "Our objective is to improve and improve everyday, and whatever we have learned, we would like to expand it, we would like to disseminate the learning to all our officers.”
If anything, Nirbhaya's rape has focused the Indian media’s attention on sexual attacks and the government’s response to the issue. But it remains unclear if the increased attention is actually shifting national attitudes about rape and crimes against women.
The four men found guilty Tuesday are expected to be sentenced as early as Wednesday. They all face the death penalty.