First verdict due today in Delhi gang rape case

NEW DELHI (AFP) - A New Delhi court is due to hand down its verdict Saturday in the case of a teenager accused of taking part in the fatal gang-rape of a student, which sparked outrage across the country.

The juvenile court has delayed releasing its verdict four times since finishing the case against the teenager, who was 17 at the time of the brutal assault on a moving bus last December.

The separate trial of four adult suspects is hearing closing arguments and is expected to wrap up in the next few weeks, with the men facing a possible death sentence if convicted.

The fifth adult, the suspected ring leader, died in jail in an apparent suicide.

If found guilty, the juvenile can be sent to a correctional facility for a maximum three-year term, including time he has already spent in custody.

The parents of the victim have called for their daughter's attackers to be hanged and criticised what they view as the leniency of the juvenile justice system, which seeks to reform rather than punish.

The perceived leniency of the maximum sentence means whatever the result there is likely to be further anger in India where the suspects, some of whom have been beaten up in jail, are public hate figures.

The Supreme Court this month cleared the way for the principal magistrate, Geetanjli Goel, to deliver a verdict.

It was delayed after a petition was lodged by an opposition politician for a review of the juvenile law, arguing suspects aged over 16 accused of serious offences should be tried in adult courts.

Given the number of delays so far, lawyers involved in the case said they were hopeful rather than confident of finally hearing a decision.

"Hopefully, the verdict will be delivered this time," the juvenile's lawyer Rajesh Tiwari told AFP.

The 23-year-old physiotherapy student died of internal injuries after being raped and assaulted with an iron bar on December 16. Her male companion was also allegedly beaten up before both were thrown from the bus.

The crime brought simmering anger about endemic sex crime in India to the boil.

Several weeks of sometimes violent protests pushed parliament to pass a new law toughening sentences for rapists, while a round of public soul-searching sought answers to the rising tide of violence against women.

The gang-rape this month of a 22-year-old photographer in the financial hub of Mumbai rekindled anger over women's safety.

The juvenile, one of six children, was employed to clean the bus allegedly used for the attack and often slept rough or inside the vehicle, reports say.

He left his impoverished home in a village in northern Uttar Pradesh state aged 11 to live in Delhi, where he took up a series of menial jobs until landing the work of cleaning the bus.

Children's rights groups called for public restraint ahead of the verdict, saying the teenager needed to be given a chance at rehabilitation, adding that India's child protection services had already failed him.

"In fact, every child coming in conflict with the law is a reflection of the state and society failing that child," Ms Vijaylakshmi Arora, director of policy and research at Child Relief and You, told AFP.