By Sanjeev Miglani and Sruthi Gottipati
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian prosecutors demanded on Wednesday the death penalty for four men convicted of raping and murdering a 23-year-old trainee physiotherapist last December, saying it was important to send a signal to the country that such crimes would not be tolerated.
"The common man will lose faith in the judiciary if the harshest punishment is not given," special public prosecutor Dayan Krishnan told trial judge Yogesh Khanna, who will sentence the men on Friday.
Indeed, outside the court, popular opinion on social media sites and comments by top politicians suggest many Indians want to see the men hanged for a crime the brutality of which shocked even in a country where sex crimes against women are rife.
Social commentators say the attack has forced Indians to confront an uncomfortable truth - that social change, in particular patriarchal attitudes towards women, has not kept pace with rapid economic growth over the past decade.
The case has resonated with thousands of urban Indians who took to the streets in fury after the attack. The victim became a symbol of the daily dangers women face in a country where a rape is reported on average every 21 minutes and acid attacks and incidents of molestation are common.
Bus cleaner Akshay Kumar Singh, gym instructor Vinay Sharma, fruit-seller Pawan Gupta, and unemployed Mukesh Singh stood at the back of the courtroom surrounded by policemen. They showed no emotion as Krishnan described their crime as "diabolical" and called for them to be hanged.
The parents of the victim, who may not be identified for legal reasons, sat just feet away from the men. After the hearing, her father bluntly told reporters: "They finished my daughter, they deserve the same fate."
The men were found guilty on Tuesday of luring the woman and a male friend onto a bus as the pair returned home from watching a movie at a shopping mall on December 16.
As the bus drove through the streets of the capital, the men repeatedly raped the victim before dumping her and her friend, naked and semi-conscious, on the road.
The men used a metal rod and their hands to pull the woman's organs from her body after raping her, Krishnan said. Her injuries were so severe that she died in hospital in Singapore two weeks after the attack.
"This is an extreme case of depravity," Krishnan said, likening the woman's injuries to someone "cutting open a fruit".
All four of the men denied the charges. Three of them said they were never on the bus while a fourth admitted driving the vehicle but said he knew nothing of the crime. The prosecution said mobile phone records, CCTV footage, DNA evidence and bite marks on the woman's body placed the men at the scene.
India's interior minister, Sushilkumar Shinde said the death penalty was assured in the case, while a senior leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Sushma Swaraj, said it was important to "set an example for the future".
Under Indian law, the death penalty is reserved for the "rarest of rare" cases. Even when it is imposed, the authorities rarely carry out executions.
"Hang them, hang them," chanted a small group of protesters outside the court.
There are 477 prisoners on death row in India, according to the interior ministry. Last year, India carried out its first hanging in eight years when it executed the lone survivor of a squad of Pakistan-based militants who attacked Mumbai in 2008, killing 166 people.
"JUDGES SHOULD NOT BE BLOODTHIRSTY"
Inside the court, lawyers for the four men pleaded for mercy and repeatedly highlighted the reluctance of Indian judges in the past to impose the death sentence.
Judges should not be bloodthirsty, said lawyer Vivek Sharma, who represents 19-year-old Gupta, the youngest of the four on trial. "You can't give capital punishment on demand."
Sharma said his client had not taken part in the rape or torture of the woman. He asked the court to take into account that Gupta was the sole breadwinner for his family and had to take care of his elderly parents and brother and sister.
A.P. Singh, lawyer for Kumar Singh and Sharma, said the death penalty was a "primitive and cold blooded and simplistic response to complex issues". He painted his clients as downtrodden who deserved a second chance.
Mukesh Singh, who said he had been driving the bus at the time of the attack, should not face the same penalty as his co-accused, his lawyer V.K. Anand told the court.
"At best, he can be held for aiding the others. Punish him, but punish him keeping in mind he was only driving the bus."
Women's rights groups have welcomed the guilty verdict but cautioned against giving the death sentence, saying that research across the world has shown that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent and the case should not set a precedent for all rapes to be punished with hanging.
If the men do receive the death penalty, India's high court will still have to confirm the sentences. The four are expected to file appeals, so proceedings could still go on for months or even years.
(This story has been refiled to remove reference to alias of one of the convicted men in paragraph 20)
(Additional reporting by Suchitra Mohanty and Anurag Kotoky; Writing by Ross Colvin; Editing by Robert Birsel)