NEW DELHI - An Indian judge will announce on Friday whether four men should hang for fatally raping a young woman on a bus last December, in one of the biggest tests in years of India's paradoxical attitude towards the death penalty.
Indian 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 UN draft resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions.
In November, India ended what many human rights groups had interpreted as an undeclared moratorium on capital punishment when it executed a militant convicted for the 2008 militant attack on Mumbai. Three months later, it hanged a man from the Kashmir region 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.
She called for the complete abolition of the death penalty.
Prosecutors want the "harshest punishment" to be given to bus cleaner Akshay Kumar Singh, gym instructor Vinay Sharma, fruit-seller Pawan Gupta, and unemployed Mukesh Singh for the murder of the woman to send a signal to society that such attacks would not be tolerated.
Sex crimes are commonplace in India, and social commentators say patriarchal attitudes towards women have not been diluted by rapid economic growth.
Comments on social media websites and elsewhere suggest that popular opinion is in favour of executing the men, although a survey by CNN-IBN-The Hindu newspaper in July showed Indians were divided on the merits of capital punishment.
The victim's parents have said their daughter's dying wish was for her attackers to be "burned alive".
The four men were found guilty this week of luring the 23-year-old trainee physiotherapist onto a bus on Dec. 16, raping and torturing her with a metal bar and then throwing her naked and bleeding onto the road. She died two weeks later.
Defence counsel A.P. Singh urged Judge Yogesh Khanna to ignore the clamour for the death penalty, which he said was a"primitive and cold-blooded and simplistic" response.