India grieves as gang-rape suspects face death sentence
NEW DELHI (AFP) - India was engulfed by a mass outpouring of grief and anger on Saturday for the victim of a gang-rape as her body was flown out of Singapore hours after she died in a hospital of her horrific injuries.
As police said the six accused of murdering the 23-year-old could face the death penalty, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led appeals for calm to prevent a repeat of the sometimes violent protests that followed the December 16 assault.
Thousands took part in fresh demonstrations but they passed off peacefully as mourners vowed the medical student's killing would serve as a tipping point for how the nation deals with violence against women.
The victim's body was prepared in a funeral parlour in Singapore, before the coffin began its journey back to India with her parents who were at her bedside when she was pronounced dead at Singapore's Mount Elizabeth Hospital before dawn.
The plane carrying the gold-coloured coffin took off from Singapore's Changi Airport shortly after midnight, India's envoy in the city state told AFP, and was expected to reach Delhi before dawn.
Protesters who gathered in the Jantar Mantar thoroughfare in central Delhi, scene of the largest protest, said the unnamed student's death was a wake-up call for a country in denial about the levels of violence that women face.
The numbers swelled throughout the day and into the evening, with some 5,000 taking part in a candlelit vigil after nightfall despite near freezing temperatures.
Bela Rana, who was among the protestors, said the outrage after the attack represented a sea change and women were no longer prepared to suffer in silence.
"We are aware that this is not the first case, nor will it be the last case of gang-rape in India, but it is clear that we will not tolerate sex crimes any more," said Rana, a Delhi-based lawyer.
After previous protests had been broken up by riot police, Saturday's passed off peacefully.
However when the chief minister of New Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, tried to join the crowds she was roundly heckled and quickly withdrew.
Some of the protesters, who also gathered in outlying areas of the capital, carried banners that read "Hang the Rapist", accompanied by a picture of a noose.
While six men who had already been arrested have yet to be formally charged, they are now accused of murder.
"We have booked all the six accused under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. It is a non-bailable offence which carries the death sentence," police spokesman Rajan Bhagat told AFP.
Dharmendra Kumar, one of Delhi's most senior police officers, said formal charges were expected to be filed by Jan 3.
The police have been heavily criticised for their hardline tactics in trying to quash the protests, including the frequent use of teargas and water cannon.
Gang-rapes are a daily occurrence in India and many go unreported by victims who have little faith in an often painfully slow justice system and are deterred by the response they can receive from male police officers.
But the particularly savage nature of the attack in Delhi has brought simmering anger to a boiling point and prompted the government to promise better security for women and harsher sentences for sex crimes.
After boarding a bus on Dec 16, the student was attacked by the men who took turns raping her and assaulted her with an iron bar before throwing her and her male companion off the moving vehicle.
"We have already seen the emotions and energies this incident has generated," said Dr Singh.
"These are perfectly understandable reactions from a young India and an India that genuinely desires change." Shah Rukh Khan, the most famous actor in Bollywood, tweeted that the victim had forced India to confront a shameful reality.
"We couldn't save u but wot a big voice u have... That voice is telling us that rape is not an aberration, not a mistake," he wrote.
"Rape embodies sexuality as our culture & society has defined it. I am so sorry that I am a part of this society and culture." After the death was announced in Singapore, the Indian High Commissioner T.C.A. Raghavan spoke of the ordeal endured by the family of the victim, who hail from a rural part of Uttar Pradesh state.
"They have repeatedly asked me to say how inspired they are by the many messages of support and condolences they have received," he said.
"This reinforces their view that the death of their child will lead to a better future for all women in India and in Delhi."