Indian university students shout slogans during a protest aganst the New Delhi gang rape on Dec 31, 2012. — AFP Photo

NEW DELHI: India's cabinet has approved harsher punishments for rapists, including the death penalty, after a brutal gang-rape in New Delhi that sparked national outrage.

A government-appointed panel recommended the changes to ministers after the death of a 23-year-old woman who was savagely raped and attacked in a bus on December 16 and died nearly two weeks later.

The case ignited nationwide demonstrations by protesters demanding better safety for women.

The changes, which must be approved by President Pranab Mukherjee to become law, include doubling the minimum sentence for gang-rape and imposing the death penalty when the victim is killed or left in a vegetative state.

“We have taken swift action and hope these steps will make women feel safer in the country,” Law Minister Ashwani Kumar told reporters late on Friday.

“This is a progressive piece of legislation and is consistent with the felt sensitivities of the nation in the aftermath of the outrageous gang-rape,” he added.

The changes to the rape laws are expected to be approved by Mukherjee as early as this weekend but must be ratified by parliament or they will lapse.

Under the changes, the minimum sentence for gang-rape, rape of a minor, rape by policemen or a person in authority will be doubled to 20 years from 10 and can be extended to life without parole.

Under the current law, a rapist faces a term of seven to 10 years.

The cabinet has also created a new set of offences such as voyeurism and stalking that will be included in the new law.

Delhi gang rape suspects plead not guilty

Meanwhile, five men pleaded not guilty on Saturday in the New Delhi gang rape case.

A Reuters witness saw the men file into the court room with their faces covered, where lawyers in the case said they were read thirteen charges including murder, which carries a maximum penalty of death. They left after 15 minutes.

“After the judge read out the charges, the five pleaded not guilty and walked out,” said AP Singh, a lawyer defending two of the accused, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Thakur.

Singh said the next hearing will be held on February 5, when the prosecution will call three witnesses to the formal start of the trial.

A sixth person police say was part of the gang that attacked the woman and her friend is a juvenile and will be tried separately.

Police say the gang lured the 23-year-old physiotherapy student onto a bus, where they repeatedly raped and assaulted her with a metal bar before throwing her bleeding onto a highway. She died of internal injuries two weeks later.