By Sruthi Gottipati and Sanjeev Miglani
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Four men were sentenced to death on Friday for raping and murdering a woman in New Delhi last December, satisfying a public clamor for them to be hanged for a crime that forced India to confront its culture of violence against women.
"These are the times when gruesome crimes against women have become rampant, and courts cannot turn a blind eye to the need to send a strong deterrent message to the perpetrators of such crimes," Judge Yogesh Khanna said in a ruling that capped one of the most notorious criminal trials in modern Indian history.
Cheers went up from a crowd inside and outside the Delhi courthouse when lawyers rushed out to announce the sentence, which had been widely expected after Khanna found the four men guilty this week of "cold-blooded" rape and murder.
The victim, who was raped for an hour and tortured with an iron rod on a moving bus, became a symbol of the dangers women face in a country where a rape is reported on average every 21 minutes and acid attacks and cases of molestation are common.
"The increasing trend of crimes against women can be arrested only once the society realize that there will be no tolerance (of) any form of deviance against women," said Khanna.
He ordered the men to "be hanged by neck till they are dead". In a symbolic gesture, he broke the nib of the pen so that it could not be used to sign another death order, court officials said.
Lawyers for all four men said they would appeal, which means their execution could still be years away. The case will go to the High Court and then Supreme Court. If they confirm the sentences, the final decision will lie with the president, who has the power to grant clemency.
India, with its poorly trained police force and clogged courts, is struggling to curb violence against women.
Social commentators say patriarchal attitudes towards women have not been diluted by more than a decade of rapid economic growth. Reports of rape, dowry deaths, molestation, sexual harassment and other crimes against women rose by 6.4 percent in 2012 from the previous year, the government said.
One of the defense lawyers, A.P. Singh, suggested in court that Khanna had bowed to political pressure after top politicians, including the country's interior minister, said the death penalty was assured. There was no immediate comment from the judge, who left the courtroom after delivering his ruling.
Interior minister Sushilkumar Shinde denied that there had been any political interference, telling a TV news channel: "No judicial authority can be influenced by the government."
The sentence threw a spotlight on India's paradoxical attitude towards the death penalty.
The country's judges hand down, on average, 130 death sentences every year but India has executed just three people in the past 17 years. There are currently 477 people on death row.
In November, India ended what many human rights groups had interpreted as an undeclared moratorium on capital punishment when it executed a man convicted for the 2008 militant attack on the city of Mumbai. Three months later, it hanged a Kashmiri separatist for a 2001 militant attack on parliament.
Although the Supreme Court ruled in the 1980s that the death penalty should be imposed only in the "rarest of rare" cases, opponents say the reality is quite different.
Indian courts sentenced 1,455 prisoners to death between 2001 and 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
One of the four men sentenced on Friday, gym instructor Vinay Sharma, wept as he was dragged out of the court, where police with riot gear had formed a barricade to keep crowds back.
"Today we can breathe a little easier," said the victim's mother, who hugged a police officer outside the court after the sentence was read. "I hope the conviction will deter people from committing such crimes in future."
"The way they hurt my daughter, I wanted them hurt too," the father told reporters at the family's Delhi apartment.
The sentencing was the climax of a seven-month trial, often held behind closed doors, that was punctuated dramatically by a fifth defendant hanging himself in his jail cell. A sixth, who was under 18 at the time of the attack, was earlier sentenced to three years detention, the maximum allowed under juvenile law.
Prosecutors had called for the "harshest punishment" to be given to Sharma, bus cleaner Akshay Kumar Singh, fruit-seller Pawan Gupta, and unemployed Mukesh Singh for last December's murder to signal that such attacks cannot be tolerated.
The four men were found guilty of luring the woman onto a bus, raping and torturing her with a metal bar and then throwing her naked and bleeding onto the road. She died two weeks later.
Violent protests exploded in several cities after the crime, a reaction commentators and sociologists said reflected a deep well of frustration that many urban Indians feel over what they see as weak governance and poor leadership on social issues.
The government, seen as out of touch with the aspirations of the burgeoning urban middle class, was caught off guard by the protests.
The case led to the introduction of tougher rape laws in March, and for the first time open conversation about gender crime in television debates, social media and even Bollywood.
(Additional reporting by Shyamantha Asokan, Nita Bhalla and Suchitra Mohanty; Writing by Ross Colvin and John Chalmers; Editing by Robert Birsel)