On December 16, a brutal crime sent shock waves across India. According to police reports, a 23-year-old female physiotherapy student and her male companion were attacked upon boarding a private bus they thought would take them home after watching a movie at a shopping mall in New Delhi.
Six attackers savagely beat the man and repeatedly raped the woman, inflicting massive internal injuries with an iron rod. The victims were then dumped naked on the roadside. The woman died from her injuries two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.
Almost nine months later, a New Delhi fast-track court delivered on Tuesday, September 10, its verdict on four of the adult suspects on trial. The men were convicted on all the counts against them, including rape and murder.
'The court cannot turn a blind eye'
Three days later, all four men were given the death penalty. Judge Yogesh Khanna was quoted as saying in his judgment that the men had committed "murder of a helpless person." He added the case fell into the "rarest of rare category", which justified capital punishment: "In these times when crimes against women are on the rise, the court cannot turn a blind eye to this gruesome act," he said.
The convicts, however, can appeal the sentence to a higher court, and ask the president for clemency. The victim's family, along with several politicians, had long called for the defendants to be executed.
The ruling was handed down only a few days after another suspect was found guilty. But unlike the four adults, the teenager defendant had been sentenced to only three years in a correctional facility - the maximum penalty allowed for a juvenile offender under Indian law.
The young convict was six months short of coming of age when the attack took place and was therefore tried separately as a minor, despite calls from the victim's family to have him judged as an adult and face the death penalty. The young offender had been described by the victim's surviving partner and the police as "the cruelest of the attackers."
The fact that he was tried in a juvenile court sparked protests and heated discussions on a possible reduction of the legal age of a juvenile. It even led to the verdict being deferred a total of four times due to a petition seeking a fresh interpretation of the term juvenile. Only five of the six alleged attackers faced legal proceedings because the reported ringleader and regular driver of the bus died in jail in an apparent suicide.
The brutality of the December attack not only made global headlines but also sparked outrage and weeks of sometimes violent protests across the vast nation, prompting Indian lawmakers to draft stricter laws on sexual violence, including a minimum 20-year prison sentence for rape and, in the event the victim dies, the death penalty.
A 'remarkable' pace
The case was closely followed across India, turning the spotlight on the issue of violence against women. Pinky Anand, a senior lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court of India, said she was amazed at the pace of the trial. "For Indian standards, the conclusion of the so-called Nirbhaya rape case is remarkable. The crime was committed in December 2012 and the trial of the juvenile accused was concluded in July 2013," Anand told DW.
The Indian law expert said that such proceedings would have earlier taken two to three years. "Although delays and prolonged trials are still a feature of the Indian judiciary, significant changes are being adopted to ensure that effective justice is imparted," Anand said. "Fast-track courts are being established to try persons accused of sexual assault. Therefore, though there is scope for further improvement, there has been significant progress," she added.
However, K. T. S. Tulsi, also a senior Indian Supreme Court lawyer, believes the speed at which these trials were conducted is restricted to isolated cases. "Speed has been exemplified on account of the fact that the horrendous crime has shaken the whole nation. But we haven't done anything to reform the system and to make sure that every rape victim gets quick justice and all the crimes are dealt with expedition," Tulsi told DW.
Reducing the social stigma
Tulsi also pointed out that the widespread media coverage of the case has also led to an increased awareness of the rape issue and of women's rights under the law. "The social stigma is getting reduced. Girls are becoming more assertive and they are open to complaining. They don't feel that the society is going to stigmatize them and this change is desirable."
This development is supported by the latest police data. According to media reports, 1,036 cases of rape were reported to police in New Dehli this year until August 15, against 433 cases over the same period last year.
The legal expert added that by implementing the maximum sentence on the adult defendants the New Delhi court sent out a clear message to Indian society: "People who treat helpless women with such extreme cruelty, will not be given any quarter by the law."
This view is shared by human rights activist Ranjana Kumari. She had previously told DW that if the adult defendants were given long sentences or even the death penalty, this could lead to the law being regarded as a deterrent.
"Surety and severity of the punishment combined with a message of zero tolerance for sexual assault are the only ways to control men and boys."