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India: Gang-rape suspects face death sentence

Sapa-AFP

Thousands of Indians have joined protests in a mass outpouring of grief and anger after a gang-rape victim died in a Singapore hospital

Indian protestors look at candles and placards during a rally in New Delhi on, after the death of a student due to gang rape.

Police have warned the suspects could face the death sentence.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led appeals for calm and police sealed off large parts of downtown Delhi as they sought to prevent a repeat of the sometimes violent protests that followed the December 16 assault.

The demonstrations passed peacefully, however, as mourners vowed the 23-year-old medical student's killing would serve as a tipping point for how the nation deals with violence against women.

The victim's gold-coloured coffin was prepared in a funeral parlour in Singapore, ready to be flown to India with her parents who were at her bedside when she was pronounced dead at Singapore's Mount Elizabeth Hospital before dawn.

Draped in a white flag, it was finally driven out of the Hindu Casket funeral home shortly before 9pm and was believed headed for the airport.

Protestors who gathered in the Jantar Mantar thoroughfare in central Delhi, scene of the largest protest, said the unnamed student's death was a wake-up call for a country in denial about the levels of violence that women face.

'Hang the Rapist'
The numbers swelled throughout the day and into the evening, with some 5 000 taking part in a candlelit vigil after nightfall despite near freezing temperatures.

Bela Rana, who was among the protestors, said the outrage after the attack represented a sea change and women were no longer prepared to suffer in silence.

"We are aware that this is not the first case, nor will it be the last case of gang-rape in India, but it is clear that we will not tolerate sex crimes anymore," said Rana, a Delhi-based lawyer.

After previous protests had been broken up by riot police, Saturday's passed off peacefully. However when the chief minister of New Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, tried to join the crowds she was roundly heckled and quickly withdrew.

Some of the protesters, who also gathered in outlying areas of the capital, carried banners that read "Hang the Rapist", accompanied by a picture of a noose.

While six men who had already been arrested have yet to be formally charged, they are now the subject of a murder investigation. "We have booked all the six accused under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. It is a non-bailable offence which carries the death sentence," police spokesperson Rajan Bhagat told AFP Dharmendra Kumar, one of Delhi's most senior police officers, said formal charges were expected to be filed by January 3.

Desire for change
The police have been heavily criticised for their hardline tactics in trying to quash the protests, including the frequent use of teargas and water cannon.

Gang-rapes are a daily occurrence in India and many go unreported by victims who have little faith in an often painfully slow justice system and are deterred by the response they can receive from male police officers.

But the particularly savage nature of the attack in Delhi has brought simmering anger to a boiling point and prompted the government to promise better security for women and harsher sentences for sex crimes.

After boarding a bus on December 16, the student was attacked by the men who took turns raping her and assaulted her with an iron bar before throwing her and her male companion off the moving vehicle.

"We have already seen the emotions and energies this incident has generated," said Singh. "These are perfectly understandable reactions from a young India and an India that genuinely desires change."

Wide-spread support
Shah Rukh Khan, the most famous actor in Bollywood, tweeted that the victim had forced India to confront a shameful reality. "We couldn't save u but wot a big voice u have ... That voice is telling us that rape is not an aberration, not a mistake," he wrote. "Rape embodies sexuality as our culture & society has defined it. I am so sorry that I am a part of this society and culture."

After the death was announced in Singapore, the Indian Commissioner T.C.A. Raghavan spoke of the ordeal endured by the family of the victim, who hail from a rural part of Uttar Pradesh state.

"They have repeatedly asked me to say how inspired they are by the many messages of support and condolences they have received," he said. "This reinforces their view that the death of their child will lead to a better future for all women in India and in Delhi." – Sapa-AFP

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