A court in Delhi has sentenced five members of an Indian family to death for their part in the murder of a young couple from different Hindu castes who had fallen in love.
The family in question tortured and electrocuted the couple -- comprising their daughter, Asha, 19, and her lover, Yogesh, 20 -- in June 2010. Asha and Yogesh planned to marry, prompting outrage from her family, due to the fact that Yogesh belonged to a different (i.e., lower) caste.
Asha's parents, uncle, aunt and cousin were arrested one day after the murders, which took place in Swaroop Nagar, just north of Delhi.
Judge Ramesh Kumar Singhal cited the "savage nature" of the crime for his decision to impose the gravest penalty.
"Keeping in view the medical evidence and the state in which the bodies of the deceased [persons] were found, it is obvious that most heinous type of murders were committed in the present case. Both the deceased were electrocuted by the [convicted],” the judge said in a statement, according to Outlook India.
"The offense was not only inhuman and barbaric, but the savage nature of the crime has shocked the judicial conscience. In the case in hand, cold-blooded, brutal murders through electrocution have been committed even as there was no provocation on behalf of the victims, making it a rarest of rare case, which calls for no punishment other than capital punishment.
"Such cruel and barbaric acts cannot be allowed to take place in developed metropolitan cities,” Singhal added.
The defense lawyer for Asha’s family, Pradeep Rana, pled for leniency based on the poverty of the defendants, among other mitigating factors.
"Considering their social setup, the court should consider that maybe the convicts thought it morally right to commit the offense," he added.
However, prosecutor P K Verma rejected such arguments.
"A judge has to balance the personality of the offender with the circumstances and situation in which offense was committed,” he said.
“In the present case, offense was committed in a barbaric manner, which shakes the conscience of humanity.”
India, which maintains the death penalty, typically did not impose capital punishment on “honor crimes” until the Supreme Court ruled last year that such killings should be regarded as capital offenses.
Ravi Kant, a New Delhi lawyer who has campaigned against honor killings, praised the sentence.
"Such a punishment will certainly have a huge impact on the society,” he told Agence France Presse.
“It will serve as a strong deterrent to one and all. The sentencing is also in line with the Supreme Court directive and it must be lauded.”
Honor killings, which are usually associated with feudal Muslim societies like rural Pakistan and Turkey, also occur with great regularity in Hindu-dominated India, particularly among the rural poor in the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, although data is incomplete.
"A majority of the people here are migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states," Assistant Police Commissioner Pankaj Kumar Singh, who is based in Swaroop Nagar, explained to BBC at the time of the arrests in the Delhi case. "People here are deeply rooted in their traditional beliefs. Caste considerations hold much sway."
Indeed, arranged marriages and hard caste distinctions remain a seemingly intransigent part of Indian society despite the extraordinary economic gains the country has made in the past couple of decades.
“Honor killings are a serious issue in India, particularly in the North, with hundreds, maybe thousands, occurring in the country each year,” said Dr. Anita Raj, a Professor in the Division of Global Public Health, Department of Medicine at The University of California at San Diego.
“This practice most often occurs against women and girls as a means of controlling their marital and sexual relationships.”
One of Asha’s uncles, Titoo Saini (who was not part of the murder conspiracy), justified the killings.
"We did it for our honor,” he told BBC. “Honor in our community and society is paramount to us. If [Asha] had run away with Yogesh, what honor would we have left then? Moreover, that would have set a bad precedent for the other children in the family. They would have done the same. Then it would have been a slow and painful death for us every living moment. This is better.”
Saini reiterated his stern opposition to inter-caste marriages.
"How can we marry outside the caste? This cannot be tolerated. Only an impotent man will accept this. If I was in their place, I would have done the same," he declared.
As for the death penalty, India rarely carries out state executions -- according to Soutik Biswas, BBC’s Delhi correspondent, only two hangings have taken place in the past dozen years. Moreover, former President Pratibha Patil commuted the death sentences of 35 convicts during her recent term.