By Sruthi Gottipati and Sanjeev Miglani
NEW DELHI, Sept 13 (Reuters) - All four Indian men convicted of raping and murdering a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi were sentenced to death on Friday, a decision the judge said sent a message to society that there can be no tolerance for such a savage crime.
Cheers went up from a crowd outside the Delhi court when lawyers rushed out to announce the sentence handed down for last December's assault, which triggered furious protest across India and rare national debate about violence against women.
"This has shocked the collective conscience of society," Judge Yogesh Khanna said, condemning the men to death by hanging.
"In these times when crime against women is on the rise, courts cannot turn a blind eye towards such gruesome crime. There cannot be any tolerance ... This crime in every way falls within the rarest of rare category warranting a death sentence."
The sentencing was one of the biggest tests in years of India's paradoxical attitude towards the death penalty.
The country's judges hand down, on average, 130 death sentences every year but India has executed just three people in the past 17 years. Despite its apparent reluctance to carry out the sentences, last year India voted against a U.N. draft resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions.
Lawyers for all four convicts said they would appeal, which means their execution could still be years away. The case will go to the High Court and then Supreme Court. If they confirm the sentences, the final decision will lie with the president, who has the power to grant clemency.
One of the four, gym instructor Vinay Sharma, wept as he was dragged out of the court, where police with riot gear had formed a barricade to keep crowds back.
The victim, who was raped for an hour and tortured with an iron rod on a moving bus, became a symbol of the dangers women face in a country where a rape is reported on average every 21 minutes and acid attacks and cases of molestation are common.
The woman, who came from a lower-middle class family and worked in a call centre while she studied, can not be named for legal reasons, but Indian media have dubbed her Nirbhaya, a Hindi word meaning fearless.
"Today we can breathe a little easier," said the victim's mother, who hugged a police officer outside the court after the sentence was read. "I hope the conviction will deter people from committing such crimes in future."
Defence lawyers had urged the court to ignore what they said was popular and political pressure for the harshest penalty.
"This is not the victory of truth. But it is the defeat of justice," defence lawyer A.P. Singh shouted at the judge when the sentence was read out.
"The judge has taken the decision under political pressure without considering facts," he told reporters later.
The country's interior minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, denied that there had been any political interference, telling a TV news channel: "No judicial authority can be influenced by the government."
The sentencing capped a seven-month trial, often held behind closed doors, that was punctuated dramatically by a fifth defendant hanging himself in his jail cell. A sixth, who was under 18 at the time of the attack, was earlier sentenced to three years detention, the maximum allowed under juvenile law.
In November, India ended what many human rights groups had interpreted as an undeclared moratorium on capital punishment when it executed a man convicted for the 2008 militant attack on the city of Mumbai. Three months later, it hanged a Kashmiri separatist for a 2001 militant attack on parliament.
"In the past year, India has made a full-scale retreat from its previous principled rejection of the death penalty," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
DIVIDED ON DEATH
Prosecutors had called for the "harshest punishment" to be given to Sharma, bus cleaner Akshay Kumar Singh, fruit-seller Pawan Gupta, and unemployed Mukesh Singh for last December's murder to signal that such attacks cannot be tolerated.
The four men were found guilty of luring the woman onto a bus, raping and torturing her with a metal bar and then throwing her naked and bleeding onto the road. She died two weeks later.
Violent protests exploded in several cities after the crime, a reaction commentators and sociologists said reflected a deep well of frustration that many urban Indians feel over what they see as weak governance and poor leadership on social issues.
The government, seen as out of touch with the aspirations of the burgeoning urban middle class, was caught off guard by the protests.
The case led to the introduction of tougher rape laws in March, and for the first time open conversation about gender crime in television debates, social media and even Bollywood.
Still, sex crimes remain commonplace in India, and social commentators say patriarchal attitudes towards women have not been diluted by more than a decade of rapid economic growth.
Comments on social media websites and elsewhere ahead of the sentencing suggested that popular opinion favoured executing the men, although a survey by CNN-IBN-The Hindu newspaper in July showed Indians were divided on the merits of capital punishment.
Although the Supreme Court ruled in the 1980s that the death penalty should be imposed only in the "rarest of rare" cases, opponents say the reality is quite different.
Indian courts sentenced 1,455 prisoners to death between 2001 and 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
There are 477 people on death row. Many have been there for years. Human rights groups have been alarmed, however, by the vigour with which President Pranab Mukherjee, who took office in July 2012, has acted in clearing the backlog of clemency pleas. He has rejected 11, confirming the death penalty for 17 people.
Some women's rights groups and legal experts had opposed executing the Delhi attackers. Others have invoked the Gandhian principle that "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind".
"Sending these four men to the gallows will accomplish nothing except short-term revenge," Tara Rao, director of Amnesty International India said in a statement.
"While the widespread anger over this case is understandable, authorities must avoid using the death penalty as a 'quick-fix' solution. There is no evidence that the death penalty is a particular deterrent to crime, and its use will not eradicate violence against women in India."