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India's Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence In Brutal Gang Rape Case


India's Supreme Court has upheld the death penalty for four men. The defendants had fatally gang raped a young woman on a bus in the capital in 2012. The case shocked the country. And just a warning here that details of the crime are disturbing. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from New Delhi. It was the savagery of the crime that guided the court's decision.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: It was the culmination of a legal drama that had gripped India, ignited street protests and created demands for the fast-tracking of rape trials. At the heart was the life of an aspiring young woman brutally cut short. Attorney Karuna Nundy says it was a trauma that galvanized the country four and a half years ago.

KARUNA NUNDY: You know, the young woman who was raped was every woman for so many people, including me. She seemed hardworking and nice and responsible, talented.

MCCARTHY: In the emotionally charged case, Nundy says she witnessed something at today's packed proceeding she's never seen before in the state Supreme Court - applause breaking out, mostly from the family of the 23-year-old victim.

NUNDY: There's probably emerged a feeling of satisfaction, of the right thing having been done, of peace, of closure.

MCCARTHY: The victim's mother, Asha Devi, had championed the death penalty for the men who raped her daughter so savagely she died of her injuries. The question before the Supreme Court was whether the capital punishment awarded the men fit the crime. In a 429-page order, the justices were in no doubt and left no leniency for the four men whose fate they were deciding.

It's a barbaric crime, and it has shaken the society's conscience, said Justice R. Banumathi, 1 of 3 judges on the bench. The judgement noted many of the gruesome details of the violence inflicted on the victim - inserting a metal rod inside of her, throwing her off a moving bus and then trying to run her over.

Human rights activist Ranjana Kumari says while she opposes the death penalty, the court's exhaustive ruling in this case convinced her that justice had been served.

RANJANA KUMARI: They did talk about the diabolic nature. They did talk about the brutality. They did talk about the heinousness of the crime. Whatever punishment they deem fit is what I'm going to accept.

MCCARTHY: The benchmark for imposing the death penalty in India is that a case be, quote, "the rarest of the rare." Justice Banumathi asked, if this case did not qualify, then what did? Attorney Karuna Nundy agrees but worries that the death penalty falls disproportionately on the poor and on India's minorities. Ranjana Kumari says the fact these four men were not spared may signal a change in how violence against women in India is perceived. In fact, Nundy says the number of sexual crimes being reported has been rising since this case in 2012.

NUNDY: I think a lot of women feel a lot more entitled to claim space and to claim bodily integrity and to claim the absence of shame when attacked. There are many good things that have happened.

MCCARTHY: The four men do have one last recourse to seek clemency from India's president. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.


Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.