NEW DELHI — Prosecutors Wednesday asked for the death sentence for four men convicted of participating in the rape and murder of a 23-year-old student in December, calling the crime “a case of extreme depravity” and arguing that the public would be outraged if the men were not hanged.
“The common man will lose faith in the judiciary if the harshest punishment is not given,” Dayan Krishnan, a special prosecutor, told the judge in the case, who is expected to deliver the sentences — either the death penalty or life in prison — for each man Friday.
A.P. Singh, a defense lawyer, called execution “a primitive and coldblooded and simplistic response to complex issues.”
“Awarding the death penalty will not end crime in the streets,” Singh said, according to pool reporters.
Both views represent powerful strains in Indian society.
India has steadfastly resisted efforts to repeal the death penalty, which was codified under British rule. But it almost never carries out executions, and a 1980 Supreme Court ruling confines their use to “the rarest of rare cases.” Only three people have been hanged in the past nine years — one found guilty of murder and rape, and two convicted of participating in terrorist attacks.
The gang rape of the young woman in December has provided a test for an ambivalent country. In a rush of emotion, the Indian government amended the criminal code so that the death penalty could be applied in particularly brutal cases of rape. In a statement to a court official before her death, the victim called for the men’s death.
“They should be hanged, so that such an incident does not happen with another woman,” the statement read, according to text provided to IANS, a news service. “They should be burned alive.”
Prosecutors Wednesday focused their argument largely on the disturbing nature of the crime: When the victim and a male friend boarded a private bus, hoping for a ride home, the men attacked them, knocking the man unconscious and taking the woman to the back of the bus. They raped her, then severely damaged her internal organs with a metal rod. They dumped the two on the roadside, naked and bleeding.
Her injuries were so severe that she died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.
“The test is, ‘Was the collective conscience shocked?’ ” Krishnan asked Wednesday, according to pool reports. “There can be no better example than this case.” He described the crime as “diabolical.”
As a precedent, Krishnan cited the case of a watchman hanged in 2004 for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl.
The defense could take some comfort in a 1980 Supreme Court judgment, which overturned a death sentence for a convicted murderer and introduced the phrase “rarest of the rare cases.” Prisoners are entitled to appeal to the Supreme Court and finally to the president, a process that can stretch out into years; 477 people are now on death row, according to Amnesty International.