NEW DELHI (AP) — Saying their crime shocked the conscience of India, the prosecutor in the fatal New Delhi gang rape called Wednesday for all four convicted rapists to be hanged, while one of the defendants shouted out his innocence as police drove him into the courthouse.
It was not clear which of the four men was shouting, because his face was obscured behind the police van's heavy metal mesh, but he repeatedly called out, "I am innocent! I am innocent!" as the van drove past a scrum of reporters.
The men were convicted Tuesday in the December gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a moving New Delhi bus, a brutal crime that unleashed a wave of public anger over the treatment of Indian women and a long-unspoken epidemic of sexual violence. The victim died two weeks after the attack.
The four face either life imprisonment or death by hanging. Calls for the men to be executed have grown increasingly loud, with everyone from the victim's parents to top political leaders demanding the men be sentenced to death.
Prosecutor Dayan Krishnan said the attack shocked India's "collective conscience," noting the police report showed the men pulled out some of the victim's body parts after savagely penetrating her with an iron rod.
"There can be nothing more diabolic than a helpless girl put through torture," he said.
Judge Yogesh Khanna said he would hand down the sentences on Friday.
The four men sat in in the back of the tiny courtroom in T-shirts or short-sleeved polo shirts, unshackled and with policemen holding them from both sides. They appeared impassive, though it was not clear how much they understood of the proceedings. Most of the day's arguments were in English, a language that only one of the men, Vinay Sharma, is able to speak. They had no translator.
The defense lawyers have long proclaimed their clients' innocence, while sometimes indicating some of the men may have been on the bus. They insist that any confessions were coerced by police torture.
On Wednesday, they called for the judge to avoid the death penalty.
"If they have committed a mistake, and the court accepted that they committed a mistake, then they should be given a chance to reform," lawyer A.P. Singh, who has worked with all the defendants at various times, said outside the courthouse. "The accused are not habitual and professional criminals. They should be given one chance to reform themselves."
Vivek Sharma, a lawyer representing Pawan Gupta, a 19-year-old fruit vendor, asked for a sentence of life imprisonment, noting that Indian law calls for execution only in very exceptional cases.
Sharma said Wednesday the crime may have happened "on the spur of the moment" and urged leniency for his client because of his age and because he had to support his impoverished family. He said Gupta did not join in the rape or in violating the victim with the rod.
The family of the victim watched from one row in front of the prisoners, close enough to touch one another.
When the hearing ended, they again called for the men to be hanged.
"They finished our daughter," said the father, who cannot be named under Indian laws guarding his daughter's identity as a rape victim. "We want them finished."
An airport baggage handler who makes a little more than $200 a month, he and his wife had broken with the conservative rural culture in which they had been raised, encouraging their daughter to study hard and even leave home to get a degree in physiotherapy. At the time of the attack, she was awaiting her exam results.
India's Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty should only be used in "the rarest of rare cases," though what defines those cases remains highly debated.
By most estimates, more than 100 people are sentenced to death in India in most years, but the vast majority of those cases are eventually commuted to life in prison.
India had an unofficial moratorium on capital punishment that lasted eight years, ending with the November 2012 execution of Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving gunmen in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Two months later, Mohammad Afzal Guru, convicted in a deadly 2001 attack on India's Parliament, was also hanged.
Indian media reports say about 400 prisoners are believed to be currently awaiting execution.
In addition to their confessions, the four convicted rapists were identified by the woman's male friend who was with her on the night of the attack. The two were coming home from a movie when the men tricked them into boarding a bus they were joy-riding. They quickly beat the friend into submission, held the woman down and took turns raping her. They also penetrated her with the rod, causing severe internal injuries that led to her death.
The defendants, like the victim, come from poor and ill-educated families. One, Mukesh Singh, occasionally drove the bus where the crime occurred and cleaned it. Another, Vinay Sharma, was a 20-year-old assistant at a gym and the only one of the attackers to graduate from high school. Akshay Thakur, 28, occasionally worked as a driver's helper on the bus.
With them on the bus were two other men. Police say Ram Singh, 33, hanged himself in prison, though his family insists he was murdered. He was the brother of Mukesh Singh. Another man — an 18-year-old who was a juvenile at the time of the attack and cannot be identified under Indian law — was convicted in August and will serve the maximum sentence he faced, three years in a reform home.
About two dozen protesters gathered Wednesday by the courthouse, calling for the four men to be executed and taunting defense lawyers.
"Hang All The Rapists" one sign urged.