Mumbai: Three convicts will hang for the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl in Maharashtra’s Kopardi village last year.

The crime had enraged the Maratha community—which accounts for about a third of the population of Maharashtra—leading to silent marches across the state that rapidly turned into a political flashpoint with the opposition using the incident to target the state government.

A sessions court in Ahmednagar awarded the death penalty to Jitendra Shinde, Nitin Bhailume and Santosh Bhaval. They can appeal the sentence in the high court.

On 18 November, the court had convicted Shinde for conspiracy to rape and kill the 15-year-old girl and two others for being part of the conspiracy and instigating Shinde. The victim’s mother, who was inconsolable after the sentence was pronounced, said justice demanded that the three convicts are given the maximum punishment.

The victim’s family and all major political parties in Maharashtra including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena had demanded the death penalty. Soon after the court read out the sentence, all of them welcomed the verdict.

Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said the punishment would send a strong message to “all those elements in the society who think up such heinous crimes against women".

Fadnavis also pointed out that the trial was completed in record time despite attempts to delay it by the counsel for one of the convicts.

In November, special public prosecutor Ujwal Nikam had argued in court that though there was no direct evidence against Bhailume and Bhaval to prove that they raped and killed the girl, their “wholehearted and methodical" participation in the conspiracy hatched by Shinde amounted to committing the crime themselves.

Nikam was handed the case by Fadnavis on a request from the victim’s family.

“Though we do not have direct evidence against the other two convicts which proves they raped and killed the victim, there is a direct circumstantial evidence which proves they were not only part of the conspiracy but they even instigated Shinde to commit the crime. They also kept watch on the victim at Shinde’s behest," Nikam said and added that the nature of the crime merited capital punishment. On 13 July 2016, the 15-year-old Maratha girl was raped and killed by Shinde and his accomplices—all three of whom are Dalits—in Kopardi village of Ahmednagar district.

Outraged Marathas took out more than 50 silent marches named Maratha Kranti Morchas in major cities and towns across the state.