NEW DELHI - An Indian judge on Friday sentenced to death four men convicted of the fatal gang rape of a student on a New Delhi bus last December, fulfilling the last wish of the 23-year-old victim.

Crowds of onlookers outside the packed courtroom burst into applause after Judge Yogesh Khanna announced his sentence during a short hearing that began at 02:30 pm (0900 GMT).

The defendants - lowly paid migrants to New Delhi, mostly in their 20s - had tears in their eyes and one of them, gym assistant Vinay Sharma, cried loudly as he was led away by police. “Judge sahib (master), show some mercy!” he shouted.

Ending a seven-month trial in a fast-track court, Khanna said that the case, which sparked widespread anger against the treatment of women in India, fell into the “rarest of rare category” which justified capital punishment.

“In these times when crimes against women are on the rise, courts cannot turn a blind eye to this gruesome act,” he announced, adding in his written statement that the “ghastly” crime had “shocked the collective conscience”.

Signing his judgement, he broke the nib of his pen - a custom of judges to convey their hope that such extreme punishments will not be necessary in the future.

The mother of the victim told reporters she was delighted the men had been ordered to hang after their convictions on Tuesday for murder, gang rape, theft, conspiracy and “unnatural acts”.

“We are happy that in the end we got justice. My daughter wanted them to be given the death sentence,” she told reporters, wearing a green saree and flanked by her husband and sons.

There has been a huge clamour for the four - Sharma, Akshay Thakur, Pawan Gupta, and Mukesh Singh - to be executed for their attack on the physiotherapy student and her male companion on December 16.

The victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons, died of grievous internal injuries on December 29 after being lured on to the private bus by the gang following a cinema trip with her companion.

After beating up the friend, the gang brutally assaulted her behind tinted windows for 45 minutes before flinging the bloodied and barely conscious couple onto a road leading to New Delhi’s international airport.

Her injuries were so severe that she died nearly a fortnight later in a Singapore hospital. She had only briefly regained consciousness, telling family and friends of her desire to see her attackers burn to death.

“It was an inhuman act which has shamed all humanity. The message is that if you commit such a crime, you will get such punishment,” Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde told a news conference afterwards.

Special prosecutor Dayan Krishnan said he had never before heard of such brutality, which saw the victim penetrated with an iron bar, and wished that the sentence “will instill some confidence in society.”

The men will now be taken to the capital’s high-security Tihar Jail where they will be placed on death row.

India had an unofficial eight-year moratorium on capital punishment until last November, when the only surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks was executed. Weeks later, a Kashmiri was hanged over his role in an attack on parliament a decade ago.

Lawyers for the men have already said they will appeal the convictions in the Delhi High Court, which will spell years of argument and delays in India’s notoriously slow legal system.

“This is injustice! This is not fair!” defence lawyer A.P. Singh shouted after the sentence was read out.

The gang’s relatives had also pleaded for their lives to be spared. Thakur’s mother Malti Devi broke down in front of reporters at the family’s home in the eastern state of Bihar.

“Why is such a young life being snuffed out in this manner?” she asked reporters, weeping.  In appeal, the defence is likely to advocate lesser sentences for some of the gang, and argue the attack was a “spur of the moment” crime and not premeditated.

Police in riot gear maintained a heavy presence outside the court on Friday with the road leading up to the complex barricaded off.

There was widespread anger after a juvenile who was convicted last month for his role in the attack was sentenced to just three years in a correctional facility - the maximum allowed by law, given his age.

A sixth suspect in the case, bus driver Ram Singh, died in prison in March in an apparent suicide.

“This sentence brings back hope to women and to parents like me, who fear for their daughters’ lives in this country,” said 42-year-old housewife Usha Jain, who stood waiting outside the court for news on Friday.

Human rights groups warned that the death penalty was no solution.

“Sending these four men to the gallows will accomplish nothing except short-term revenge,” commented Tara Rao, head of Amnesty International in India, in a statement.

“There is no evidence that the death penalty is a particular deterrent to crime, and its use will not eradicate violence against women in India.”