Convicted Indian rapist shouts 'I am innocent!'

NEW DELHI (AP, AFP) - One of the men convicted in the fatal December gang rape of a young New Delhi woman has called out his innocence as a police van he was riding in pulled into the courthouse where he and three other men are expected to be sentenced.

It was not clear which man was shouting, since his face was obscured behind heavy metal mesh, but he repeatedly shouted "I am innocent! I am innocent! I am innocent" as the van drove past a scrum of reporters on Wednesday.

A court convicted all four men on Tuesday in the gang rape of the woman on a moving New Delhi bus, a brutal crime that galvanized public anger over the sexual violence faced by Indian women. The men's lawyers have long said they are innocent.

An Indian judge will on Wednesday consider the sentences for four men found guilty of the brutal gang rape and murder of an Indian student on a bus, as the victim's family leads calls for them to be hanged.

A day after he handed down his verdicts over a crime that sickened India, Judge Yogesh Khanna will consider arguments from the prosecution and defence counsels over the severity of the punishment.

The 23-year-old victim's parents have insisted the four must be executed for what the judge branded the "cold-blooded murder" last December of their daughter, who was left with grievous internal injuries.

"The manner (in which) they committed this crime and destroyed a life, they should not get anything less then the death sentence," the mother of the victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons, told NDTV television late on Tuesday.

Khanna is also under immense public and political pressure to order the death sentence, which can be handed down for "the rarest of rare" crimes but is seldom carried out in practice.

The case brought simmering public anger over rape and harassment to the boil, sparking unprecedented protests, tougher new laws to tackle sex crime and a bout of introspection about India's treatment of women.

Defence lawyers, who have announced plans to appeal Tuesday's verdicts, are set to argue that death sentences are not warranted for their clients, who were migrants to New Delhi living around a southern slum.

A lawyer for one of the men, part-time labourer and bus driver Mukesh Singh, said the defence team was "well prepared" to counter the prosecution's calls for the death sentence.

"In a case where there is a call for the death penalty, then we will argue for an easing of the punishment," V.K. Anand told AFP.

Lawyers for the three other men - Akshay Thakur, Pawan Gupta and Vinay Sharma - will also put forward their arguments before the judge at the same courtroom in south Delhi where they were found guilty on Tuesday.

Policemen with batons stood guard outside on Wednesday morning, warning they would not tolerate a repeat of the chaotic scenes of Tuesday when a fight broke out between Indian journalists as they waited for the verdicts.

Vivek Sharma, who is representing Gupta, said the judge should decide in a matter of days, possibly as early as Wednesday.

"If all arguments wrap up tomorrow, then the judge may announce the sentence. If not, it could easily come the day after," he told AFP.

The judge convicted the men on charges including gang rape, murder and theft Protesters gathered outside the court on Tuesday to demand the four be hanged, some wearing makeshift nooses.

Welcoming Tuesday's verdict, The Times of India newspaper said the men should be executed.

"Considering the heinous crime... the most severe punishment for its perpetrators is fully justified," it said in an editorial.

The government, stung by the mass protests that followed the attack, has introduced tough new anti-rape laws which include provisions for some sex attackers to be executed even if a victim survives.

This will not apply to the case under consideration on Wednesday, which took place before the law cleared parliament in March.

One of the leaders of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Sushma Swaraj, said the hanging of the four would send out a clear signal of India's determination to tackle violence against women.

"If they are awarded the death sentence, it would become a model for the country and effectively curb incidents of rapes," she told reporters.

There was outrage last month when a juvenile who was also convicted of taking part in the attack was sentenced to three years in a remedial home - the maximum punishment allowed by law.

A fifth adult defendant, bus driver Ram Singh, was found hanging in his prison cell in March while awaiting trial.

The seven-month trial featured DNA evidence linking the four to the crime scene, statements from a male companion who was beaten up during the attack, as well as the victim's dying testimony.

The victim and her male friend had spent the evening at the movies when they were picked up by a bus.

But rather than take them home, the group subjected the pair to a horrifying 45-minute ordeal before throwing them out of the bus, virtually unconscious and naked.