Family demand hanging ahead of Delhi gang-rape verdict

NEW DELHI (AFP) - A court will hand down its verdict on four men accused of murder and gang rape on Tuesday over an attack on a bus that sparked mass protests across India, as the victim's family calls for them to hang.

The parents of the popular physiotherapy student have been at the forefront of calls for the men to face the death sentence over the Dec 16 attack in New Delhi, which also triggered new anti-rape laws.

Their 23-year-old daughter, who cannot be named for legal reasons, died of her injuries on December 29 in a Singapore hospital.

The four men, Mukesh Singh, Akshay Thakur, Pawan Gupta and Vinay Sharma, have all pleaded not guilty to the charges which include murder, rape and theft.

A juvenile has already been sentenced to three years in a correctional facility, while a fifth adult defendant, bus driver Ram Singh, was found hanging in his prison cell in March while awaiting trial.

The seven-month trial has been held in a special fast-track court in south Delhi, with more than 100 witnesses called to give evidence, including 85 for the prosecution.

Despite an initial gagging order on the trial, the case has drawn huge media interest and about 20 TV trucks were outside the court on Tuesday morning, according to an AFP journalist.

Presiding judge Yogesh Khanna said last week that he would deliver his verdict on Sept 10 after dismissing requests from defence lawyers for more time.

But last-minute legal challenges could still delay Tuesday's verdict. The sentence against the juvenile was deferred four times before being handed down.

During the trial of the four accused, the prosecution produced DNA evidence, the victim's dying testimony and statements from a male companion who was beaten up during the attack.

The victim and her companion had spent the evening watching a movie at a mall in south Delhi when they were picked up by one of the many private buses plying the streets.

But rather than take them home, the group are alleged to have subjected the pair to a horrifying 45-minute ordeal that ended with both of them thrown out of the bus, virtually unconscious and naked.

In an interview ahead of the verdict, the 28-year-old companion told AFP that the assault was beyond a nightmare.

"I never imagined that one human being could treat another so badly," he said in an interview.

The student's family were bitterly disappointed with the three-year sentence handed down last month on the youngest defendant, the maximum allowed by law as he was only 17 at the time of the attack.

The victim's father has said the family will only get some sense of closure if the four remaining defendants are ordered to be hanged.

India has the death sentence for the "rarest of rare crimes", but does not often carry out executions.

The sentencing may not come until a few days after the verdict. Any subsequent appeal by the defendants is likely to take years in India's notoriously slow legal system.

"We will not accept anything below the death penalty," the father told AFP from his home in southwestern Delhi in an interview last week.

"Anything other than the gallows for these men will not be right. It would send out the wrong message, people will lose trust in our judicial system." He added: "If all four are sentenced to death, I can't imagine anything being better than that. Nothing could get better.... We will get closure."

The mother of Vinay Sharma, who is one of the defendants, said that she hoped the court would be merciful but feared for son's life even if he is acquitted.

"People are angry. Now that Vinay's picture is public, they will lynch him if they get a chance," the mother, Champa Devi, told The Hindu newspaper.

"Even if Vinay made a mistake, they should be given a chance to reform," she added.

The attack sparked weeks of sometimes violent street protests across India with seething public anger about sex crimes against women.

It also led to tougher laws for sex offenders, including the death penalty for rapists whose victims die or are left in a vegetative state.

But savage attacks against women are still reported daily in India's newspapers and the gang-rape of a photographer last month near an upmarket area of Mumbai rekindled public disgust.