By Sanjeev Miglani and Anurag Kotoky
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Four men were convicted on Tuesday of the "cold-blooded" murder of a woman who was raped and tortured on a bus in New Delhi, a crime that shook India and forced the country to confront sexual violence in a society undergoing wrenching change.
The four - a bus cleaner, gym instructor, fruit seller and an unemployed man - face hanging, the maximum penalty for murder. The trial judge will hear prosecution and defense arguments on sentencing on Wednesday, when he could deliver his ruling.
The minimum sentence the men could get is life imprisonment, two defense lawyers said.
"She has got justice today. We are very happy," said the father of the 23-year-old trainee physiotherapist who was attacked on December 16. "We are very confident that all of them will be hanged."
Judge Yogesh Khanna said he had relied in part on the dying declaration of the victim in finding the men guilty.
As he read the verdict, the mother of the victim sat with tears in her eyes, just a few feet from the four men who stood flanked by policemen against a wall in the court.
The victim, who came from a lower-middle class family and worked in a call center while she studied, cannot be named for legal reasons, but Indian media have dubbed her Nirbhaya, a Hindi word meaning fearless.
She became a symbol of the daily dangers women face in a country where a rape is reported on average every 21 minutes and acid attacks and incidents of molestation are common.
The case has resonated with thousands of urban Indians who took to the streets in fury after the attack. The victim's path through education onto the first rungs of middle-class life seemed to epitomize the aspirations of millions of young women in a society where many men believe women should stay at home.
Bus cleaner Akshay Kumar Singh, gym instructor Vinay Sharma, fruit-seller Pawan Gupta, and unemployed Mukesh Singh lured the woman and a male friend onto the bus as the pair returned home from watching a movie at a shopping mall.
As the bus drove through the streets of the capital, the men repeatedly raped and tortured the victim with a metal bar before dumping her and her friend, naked and semi-conscious, on the road. She died in a Singapore hospital two weeks later of internal injuries.
In his 240-page judgment, Judge Khanna slammed the "inconsistent" defense. Three of the men said they were never on the bus, and another said he was driving and knew nothing of the crime, despite DNA evidence and bite marks on the women's body that placed them at the scene.
Khanna said the attackers pulled the woman's intestines from her body with metal rods and their bare hands. He accused the men of cold-bloodedly killing their "helpless victim".
"NOT LIKE NORMAL"
Police constable Naresh Chand, who led the four men away from the court after the verdict, said they were subdued. "It was not like normal today. They are usually whispering among themselves, even smiling. Today they were quiet."
The verdict 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.
After the verdict, Mukesh Singh's mother, a frail woman in a peach and pink sari, fell to the floor crying outside the court and clutched the feet of his lawyer, V.K. Anand.
Gupta's lawyer said his client was tearful as the verdict was read out, while Sharma's mother said her son was innocent. The lawyers representing Mukesh Singh, Akshay Kumar Singh and Vinay Sharma said they would appeal.
In the narrow-laned slum where the men met to drink alcohol and eat chicken before setting off in the bus to find the victim on the night of the attack, neighbors and relatives were glued to television sets awaiting the ruling.
"Now that they are proven guilty, they must be hanged. There cannot be any other option," said student Rajesh Singh, a resident who complained the name of the Ravidass Camp slum had become synonymous with criminals.
Beyond the court, the case cemented India's reputation as unsafe for women, even after parliament passed laws against sexual crimes. Nine months on, the conversation about gender crime is still prominent in television debates, social media and even Bollywood.
This has not translated into women feeling any safer in India, say activists, although it has helped in breaking the silence around such crimes. Several other rape cases have become national issues, most recently an attack in August on a photographer in Mumbai, a city previously seen as safe.
Police in New Delhi believe a rise in rape reports is partly due to an increased willingness by victims to come forward. There were 1,036 cases of rape reported in the capital this year to August 15, against 433 over the same period last year, according to police data.
Still, many in the deeply patriarchal society blame the increasing visibility of women in public life, and their clothing choices, for such attacks.
"I am from a village, but I think 70 percent of the mistake is of girls. The dressing style is so dirty. Just yesterday I saw girls wearing skimpy clothes, there was one boy with them. Even boys are at fault," said Sudhir, 58-year-old man travelling on the Delhi Metro system.
(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; additional reporting by Sruthi Gottipati, Shyamantha Asokan, Suchitra Mohanty, Nita Bhalla, Anurag Kotoky, Aditya Kalra and Anuja Jaiman; Editing by Ross Colvin and Robert Birsel)