India court set to pass first verdict in gang-rape case

NEW DELHI - An Indian court was scheduled to deliver Thursday the first verdict on one of five suspects on trial over the deadly gang-rape of a student in December which shocked the nation and sparked mass protests.

The juveniles' court in New Delhi has finished hearing the case of a teenager, aged 17 at the time of the deadly assault on a bus in the capital, who faces a maximum sentence of three years in a correctional facility.

The verdict had been expected on July 11, but was deferred by the principal magistrate Geetanjli Goel until Thursday.

Some media reports speculated that an announcement might again be delayed due to a new petition in the Supreme Court which argues that the teenager should be a tried as an adult because of the serious nature of the offence.

A lawyer connected with the teenager's case, who asked not to be named, told AFP he still expected a verdict on Thursday.

The crime, which saw the 23-year-old student victim die of internal injuries inflicted during the savage attack on a moving bus, generated widespread anger about endemic sex crime in India.

Several weeks of protests pushed parliament to pass a new law toughening sentences for rapists, while a round of public soul-searching sought to explain the rising tide of violence against women.

The trial of the adult suspects - one of whom died while in jail from a suspected suicide in March - continues in a separate court but is expected to wrap up in the next few months.

The juvenile suspect, a runaway who reportedly left home aged 11, can be sent to a correctional facility for a maximum three-year term, which will take into account the time he has already spent in custody.

The teenager, the youngest of six children according to his mother, was employed to clean the bus allegedly used for the attack and often slept rough or inside the vehicle, reports say.

He has denied any involvement in the crime.

The parents of the victim, whom AFP is also not naming in accordance with Indian law, were present inside the small courtroom on Thursday.

They have called for the killers of their daughter to be hanged and have criticised what they view as the leniency of India's juvenile justice system, which seeks to reform rather than punish criminals under 18.

A sentence of three years' detention for the teenager would likely cause further public anger in India where the suspects, some of whom have been beaten up in jail, are hate figures.

About sixty journalists from the domestic and international media gathered outside the court on Thursday.

India's legal system and police forces have faced intense scrutiny over their failure to curb violence against women following the Delhi gang-rape and other cases.

Reports of horrifying sexual assaults are still a daily feature of Indian newspapers and the number of recorded crimes against women has rocketed since the December 16 case.

One of the main consequences of the case, say campaigners, has been that women feel more emboldened to report crimes against them, while criticism of the police has made officers more sensitive when dealing with such cases.

A court in central India last week sentenced six men to life in prison for the gang-rape and robbery of a 39-year-old Swiss woman cyclist who was holidaying in the country in March.