New Delhi (CNN)Outside the Delhi High Court on Friday, there were few clues that a momentous decision was underway in India’s watershed gang rape case. Besides a small band of lawyers and journalists, few were present when the court ruled that come Sunday, the youngest of six men who tortured and raped a physiotherapy student on a moving Delhi bus would be a free man.
He had participated in the most heinous of acts but because he was just shy of his 18th birthday on the night of the rape, he served only three years in custody, a sentence that many felt amounted to a severe miscarriage of justice.
And yet, there were not the thousands of protesters who gathered on the streets of the Indian capital after horrific details of the rape came to light. Nor was there the anger expressed outside this very court in September 2013 at the sentencing of the other convicted rapists. On that hot day, Indians had demanded “fansi,” death by hanging.
But in the cool breeze of this December day, the outrage that sprouted from this case seemed a memory. The only expression of disappointment came from the victim’s parents and the lawyers who had fought to defer release.
The victim’s mother, Asha Singh, had promised her daughter she would fight for her but on Friday, she said she had failed.
“Crime has won. We have lost,” Singh said. “Our efforts for three years have failed.”
India’s juvenile justice laws were drafted with the best of intentions and aimed at reform for minors. A minor’s maximum punishment is three years in custody.
In the aftermath of the gang rape, a bill introduced in parliament sought to amend the law to make exceptions for heinous crimes. But that bill was tabled in the upper house.
Indian law enforcement and lawmakers had asked for continued custody of the minor, who has been held at an institution for juvenile reform. But the high court could not find legal ground on which to issue a stay.
“The court is no doubt concerned by what has happened and the seriousness of the offense, but the court is also helpless because they have to stay within the confines of the act and the rules and the law,” said Anil Soni, a government lawyer.
Three years was a sentence that seemed vastly disproportionate given the heinous nature of the rape. Of the other five rapists,one died in prison and the other four received death sentences.
Their crime was unimaginably brutal. On the night of December 16, 2012, the victim and a male friend boarded a bus to make their way home from a south Delhi movie theater, not far from the high court complex. They were attacked by the six men and left on the side of the road to die.
The woman was found with her intestines pulled out of her body. She was dubbed “Nirbhaya,” one without fear, as she struggled for survival, first in Delhi and then in a hospital in Singapore. She died of her injuries 13 days later.