NEW DELHI -- Four men convicted of a gang rape and murder were sentenced Friday to die by hanging, a decision met with satisfaction on the part of the victim's parents and cheers from the crowd outside the courthouse, where some held up makeshift nooses and pictures of hanging bodies.
The men -- a fruit vendor, a bus attendant, a gym handyman and an unemployed man -- were found guilty Tuesday of raping a young woman on a moving bus in December, penetrating her with a metal rod and inflicting grave internal injuries, then dumping her on the roadside.
The country was riveted by the story of the woman, who died of her injuries two weeks later, and tens of thousands of people flooded the streets to demand tougher policing and prosecution of sex crimes.
But until the last minute it was unclear whether this would lead to death sentences in a country where liberal and populist impulses have strained against one another for decades, reserving the death sentences for "the rarest of rare cases." News of the decision was met with a wave of jubilation on the street outside.
"This is the beginning of freedom for Indian women today," said Raman Deep Kaur, 38, a cosmetologist. "Today we are free, because these men are going to be killed."
Sadashiv Gupta, a defense lawyer for one of the men, Pawan Gupta, said he had reassured his client that the ruling would very likely be commuted to life imprisonment.
"I met with my client and I told him, 'You are going to get the death penalty, take it in stride and don't panic,' " Mr. Gupta said. "I think he shall not be hanged."
During the trial, defense lawyers invoked the "rarest of the rare" language laid out in a 1980 Supreme Court decision that overturned a death sentence.
One cited the words of Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India's independence movement: "God gives life and he alone can take it, not man-made courts." They also invoked mitigating circumstances, like the young age and poverty of the defendants, or the fact that they had been drinking, undercutting the notion that the crime was premeditated.
But Judge Yogesh Khanna rejected those arguments, saying this crime embodied "the rarest of the rare," and invoked the possibility of a larger wave of violence against women.
"In these times when crimes against women are on the rise, the court cannot turn a blind eye to this gruesome act," he said, according to reporters in the courtroom. At this, one of the defendants, Vinay Sharma, broke down in tears and cried.
A.P. Singh, who defended two of the men, called the decision "completely unfair" and said it had been made under political pressure at a moment when Indian leaders are looking ahead to parliamentary elections next spring.
Although there were six men on the bus when the woman was attacked, two were not sentenced Friday. One defendant, Ram Singh, who was driving the bus at times during the assault, hanged himself with his bedsheet in his New Delhi prison cell in March. A second defendant, who has not been named because he is a juvenile, was sentenced last month to three years in a detention center -- the heaviest sentence possible in India's juvenile justice system.