New Delhi: The Delhi high court (HC) will hear on a day-to-day basis from Wednesday the death penalty reference against the four convicts in the 16 December gang-rape and murder case of a 23-year-old girl.

A bench of justices Reva Khetrapal and Pratibha Rani, after recording the appearances of convicts Mukesh (26), Akshay Thakur (28), Pawan Gupta (19) and Vinay Sharma (20) on Tuesday said, “Let us hear the death reference from tomorrow (Wednesday) on a day-to-day basis. Meanwhile, you (convicts) file the appeal."

The court also rejected the contention of the convicts’ counsel, who were opposing early hearing of the reference, saying, “Let us start from tomorrow hearing of the background of the case. The state will open the case and in the meantime you can file your appeal."

The four convicts were produced before the bench in the presence of a strong police posse in the wake of production warrants issued by the court. The four, appearing nervous, were brought to a jam-packed courtroom even as hundreds of people, including litigants, court staff and other employees, were seen waiting outside.

During the hearing, advocate V.K. Anand, representing convict Mukesh, told the court that he will file an appeal within the stipulated time (30 days) given by the trial court. He said the court should hear the reference along with the appeal of the convicts.

Advocate Vivek Sharma, appearing for Pawan, also made a similar request to the bench, saying the court should hear the matter at least after one week. Counsel A.P. Singh submitted that he will appear for convicts Akshay and Vinay. The bench, however, declined their request, saying, “We will not dispose of the reference till you file your appeal, but nothing prevents us from hearing the background of the case. We were told that there are four bags of documents and the state can open the case from tomorrow (Wednesday)."

“Only one counsel can attend the proceedings to note down the points. You all counsel need not be present in the court. It is in the interest of justice that the matter should be heard from Wednesday. Sword is also hanging on their (convicts) heads. It is also in their interest that the court should start hearing the death reference at the earliest," the bench said.

Meanwhile, special public prosecutor Dayan Krishnan referred to legal provisions and said in the case of death reference, the state should open its case first. After the proceedings concluded, the onlookers started clicking photographs of the convicts.

The court had on Monday issued production warrants and directed the Tihar Jail authorities to produce before it four death row convicts in the case on the trial court’s reference for confirmation of the capital punishment given to them.

On 13 September, while awarding capital punishment to Mukesh, Akshay, Pawan and Vinay, the trial court had referred the case to the high court for confirmation of the sentence. The trial court has to refer each death penalty case to the high court for confirmation of the punishment. The trial court had granted 30 days’ time to the convicts to file their appeal before the high court. The four were awarded death penalty in the gang-rape case by the trial court which said it fell in the rarest-of-rare category as the crime was committed against the 23-year-old “defenceless" girl in a “beastly" and “hair-raising" manner.

“Accordingly, the convicts be hanged by neck till they are dead," the trial court had said, noting that the inhuman and ghastly acts of the convicts shocked the collective conscience of the nation and deserves exemplary punishment. Prime accused Ram Singh (34) was found dead in a cell in Tihar Jail in March and proceedings against him were abated. On 31 August, the juvenile accused was convicted and sentenced to a maximum of three years in a reformation home.

On 16 December last year, the paramedic student was gang-raped in a moving bus in south Delhi after the convicts lured her and her male friend, who was also assaulted, on board the vehicle, which was found to be plying illegally. The victim’s 28-year-old friend suffered fractures in his limbs. The girl succumbed to her injuries on 29 December in a Singapore hospital.