NEW DELHI – Indian police charged six men with murder on Saturday, adding to accusations that they beat and gang-raped a woman on a New Delhi bus nearly two weeks ago in a case that shocked the country.
The murder charges were laid after the woman died earlier Saturday in a Singapore hospital where she has been flown for treatment.
New Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said the six face the death penalty if convicted, in case that has triggered protests across India for greater protection for women from sexual violence, and raised questions about lax attitudes by police toward sexual crimes.
The tragedy has forced India to confront the reality that sexually assaulted women are often blamed for the crime, forcing them to keep quiet and discouraging them from reporting it to authorities for fear of exposing their families to ridicule. Police often refuse to accept complaints from those who are courageous enough to report the rapes, and the rare prosecutions that reach courts drag on for years.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he was aware of the emotions the attack has stirred, adding it was up to all Indians to ensure that the young woman's death will not have been in vain.
The victim "passed away peacefully" early Saturday at Mount Elizabeth hospital in Singapore with her family and officials of the Indian Embassy by her side, Dr. Kevin Loh, the chief executive of the hospital, said in a statement.
After 10 days at a hospital in New Delhi, the Indian capital, the woman was brought Thursday to Mount Elizabeth, which specializes in multi-organ transplants. Loh said the woman had been in extremely critical condition since Thursday, and by late Friday her condition had taken a turn for the worse, with her vital signs deteriorating.
"Despite all efforts by a team of eight specialists in Mount Elizabeth hospital to keep her stable, her condition continued to deteriorate over these two days," Loh said.
The woman and a male friend, who have not been identified, were on a bus in New Delhi after watching a film on the evening of Dec. 16 when they were attacked by six men who raped her. The men beat the couple and inserted an iron rod into the woman's body, resulting in severe organ damage. Both were then stripped and thrown off the bus, according to police.
As news of the victim's death reached New Delhi, hundreds of policemen sealed off the high-security India Gate area, where the seat of India's government is located, in anticipation of more protests.
The area is home to the president's palace, the prime minister's office and key defense, external affairs and home ministries, and has been the scene of battles between protesters and police for days after the attack.
Police were allowing people to assemble at the Jantar Mantar and Ramlila grounds, the main areas allotted for protests in New Delhi, Bhagat said.
Mourners gathered at Jantar Mantar to express their grief and demand stronger protection for women and the death penalty for rape, which is now punishable by a maximum of life imprisonment. Women face daily harassment across India, ranging from catcalls on the streets, groping and touching in public transport to rape.
They put a wreath studded with white flowers on the road, lit a candle and sat around it in a silent tribute to the young woman. Members of a theatre group nearby played small tambourine and sang songs urging the society to wake up and end discrimination against women.
Dipali, a working woman who uses one name, said the rape victim deserved justice. "I hope it never happens again to any girl," she said.
Dozens of students of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi marched silently to the bus stop from where the rape victim and her friend had boarded the bus on Dec. 16. They carried placards reading "She is not with us but her story must awaken us."
Sonia Gandhi, the governing Congress party chief, assured the protesters in a statement that the rape victim's death "deepens our determination to battle the pervasive, the shameful social attitudes and mindset that allow men to rape and molest women and girls with such an impunity."
The protesters heckled Sheila Dikshit, the top elected leader of New Delhi state, when she came to express her sympathy with them and forced her to leave the protest venue. They blamed her for the deteriorating law and order situation in the Indian capital.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the woman's death was a sobering reminder of the widespread sexual violence in India.
"The outrage now should lead to law reform that criminalizes all forms of sexual assault, strengthens mechanisms for implementation and accountability, so that the victims are not blamed and humiliated," Ganguly said.
Prime Minister Singh said he understood the angry reaction to the attack and that he hoped all Indians would work together to make appropriate changes.
"These are perfectly understandable reactions from a young India and an India that genuinely desires change," Singh said in a statement Saturday. "It would be a true homage to her memory if we are able to channel these emotions and energies into a constructive course of action."
Mamta Sharma, head of the state-run National Commission for Women, said the "time has come for strict laws" to stop violence against women. "The society has to change its mindset to end crimes against women," she said.
Indian attitudes toward rape are so entrenched that even politicians and opinion makers have often suggested that women should not go out at night or wear clothes that might be seen provocative.
Separately, authorities in Punjab state took action Thursday when an 18-year-old woman killed herself by drinking poison a month after she told police she was gang-raped.
State authorities suspended one police officer and fired two others on accusations they delayed investigating and taking action in the case. The three accused in the rape were arrested only on Thursday night, a month after the crime was reported.
"This is a very sensitive crime, I have taken it very seriously," said Paramjit Singh Gill, a top police officer in the city of Patiala.
The Press Trust of India reported that the woman was raped Nov. 13 and reported the attack to police Nov. 27. But police harassed the girl, asked her embarrassing questions and took no action against the accused, PTI reported, citing police sources.
Associated Press writers Heather Tan and Faris Mokhtar in Singapore and Ravi Nessman in New Delhi contributed to this report.