Four men convicted of gang-raping and murdering a young Delhi woman, who came to be known as Nirbhaya, were hanged in pre-dawn darkness on Friday, closing a horrific chapter that shook the nation's collective core with the details of its barbarity and led to tougher anti-rape laws.
Mukesh Singh, 32, Pawan Gupta, 25, Vinay Sharma, 26, and Akshay Kumar Singh, 31, were executed at 5.30 am in Tihar Jail, eight years after the cold winter night of December 16, 2012 when the 23-year-old intern was raped in a bus that moved through the streets of the national capital.
As news of the execution came in, finally delivering hard-won justice to her family and to an outraged nation, her mother let out a sigh of relief that her quest for justice was over at last.
"We finally got justice. We will continue our fight for justice for India's daughters. Justice delayed, but not denied," Asha Devi told reporters at her home after a sleepless night that also saw the Supreme Court holding an extraordinary hearing that continued till 3.30 am.
Minutes before the execution, Mukesh said he would like to donate his organs while Vinay wanted his paintings, done during his years in jail, to be given to the jail superintendent and his 'Hanuman Chalisa' to his family, another official said.
Recapping the convicts' last hours, a jail official said Vinay and Mukesh had dinner but none of the four had breakfast or a bath before they were led to the gallows.
"Vinay and Mukesh had their dinner properly on time. The meal comprised roti, dal, rice and sabzi. Akshay had tea in the evening but did not have dinner," the official said.
The four convicts showed no signs of anxiety in the evening, he added.
Jail officials said the bodies were kept hanging for half an hour, a mandatory procedure after execution in accordance with the prison manual. The bodies were taken to the DDU Hospital for post-mortem and then handed to the families for the last rites.
According to a senior jail official, Akshay's body was taken to his village at Aurangabad in Bihar.
"The family members of Mukesh took his body to Rajasthan. The bodies of Vinay and Pawan were shifted to their houses at Ravidas Camp in south Delhi," he said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi echoed the grieving mother and said justice had prevailed. It was of the utmost importance to ensure the dignity and safety of women, he added.
Nirbhaya was raped and brutalised by six men who dumped her on the road and left her for dead. Her friend who was with her was also severely beaten and thrown out.
She was so severely violated her insides were spilling out when she was taken to hospital and died in a Singapore hospital after battling for her life for a fortnight.
Of the six, Ram Singh allegedly committed suicide in Tihar Jail days after the trial began, and the juvenile was released in 2015 after spending three years in a correctional home.
This is the first time that four men have been hanged together in Tihar Jail, South Asia's largest prison complex that houses more than 16,000 inmates.
The executions were carried out after the men exhausted every possible legal avenue to escape the gallows. Their desperate attempts only postponed the inevitable by less than two months after the first date of execution was set for January 22.
In last-gasp attempts, one of the convicts knocked on the doors of the Delhi high court and the Supreme Court just hours before the hanging.
A Supreme Court bench dismissed Pawan's last plea in a late-night hearing that began at 2.30 am and lasted an hour.
It also refused to pass any direction allowing Pawan and Akshay to meet their family members just before they are sent to the gallows.
Outside Tihar Jail, hundreds of people gathered despite the unearthly hour and the coronavirus scare to await news of the execution.
Cheers went up after the hanging with some waving the national flag and shouting slogans of 'Long Live Nirbhaya' and 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' and some distributing sweets.
Among the people who had gathered was social activist Yogita Bhayana who held a poster which read "Nirbhaya has got justice. The other daughters still await".
Union Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani welcomed the news.
"I have seen Nirbhaya's mother's struggle over the years, though it took time to get justice but it has been done finally.
"It is also a message to people that you can run away from law but cannot finally avoid it.
Pramod Singh Kushwaha, who headed the investigation team and is now DCP of Delhi Police's Special Cell, told PTI the hanging was a "tribute to the departed soul" and would act as a deterrent.
Taking a counter view, human rights group Amnesty International said death penalty is never the solution towards ending violence against women and called the execution a "dark stain" on India's human rights record.
The road to the gallows was a long and circuitous one, going through the lower courts, the High Court, the Supreme Court and the president's office before going back to the Supreme Court that heard and rejected various curative petitions.
The death warrants were deferred by a court thrice on the grounds that the convicts had not exhausted all their legal remedies and that the mercy petition of one or the other was before the president.
On March 5, a trial court issued fresh death warrants for March 20 at 5.30 am as the final date for the execution.