Plainclothes policemen escort an Indian teenager, with his head covered by a towel, to a juvenile court in New Delhi on Saturday. The Indian teenager was sentenced to three years in juvenile detention for the December gang rape of a medical student. (REUTERS)

A New Delhi teenager was convicted and sentenced to three years in a juvenile correctional facility Saturday for his role in the fatal gang rape of an Indian woman this past December, a brutal crime that sparked widespread domestic protests and international outrage.

In the first conviction in the case, the Juvenile Justice Board ruled that the teen, now 18, was guilty of rape and murder for his role in the Dec. 16 attack, in which six men set upon a 23-year-old paramedical student in a moving bus and gang-raped her. She died days later from her injuries.

In an emotional scene outside the courtroom, a small group of protesters wearing black bandannas emblazoned with the words “16 December Revolution” demanded that the youth be hanged for his role in the crime, and the victim’s family decried the verdict.

“I do not accept this verdict,” said the young woman’s mother. “If three years is all that they wanted to give, why did they make us wait all this while? They could have given it earlier.”

Four other men will be tried separately for their roles in the attack. The driver of the bus, who was also involved, committed suicide in his jail cell in March.

The teen’s verdict comes in the wake of another gang rape this month — this time of a young photojournalist in Mumbai — that has refocused attention on the problem of violence against women in India, where a woman is raped every 20 minutes, according to official crime statistics.

In March, India’s Parliament passed a law mandating harsher penalties for rape and other sexual crimes against women. Yet the unprecedented outcry over the December rape does not appear to have reduced the incidence of sexual assault here — seriously denting India’s image as a modernizing nation with global aspirations.

Earlier this month, an American college student’s account of being constantly groped and molested while living in the country — titled “India: The Story You Never Wanted to Hear” — went viral online.

The teen’s arrest was the most controversial in the December case and has led to a debate about how juvenile offenders are treated in India.

After police investigators had earlier described the teen, who pleaded not guilty, as the most brutal of the six accused, protesters had called for him to be tried as an adult. Many anti-rape activists also demanded unsuccessfully that the government lower the age defining a juvenile in crimes such as rape.

India’s Supreme Court last week agreed to hear an independent petition calling for a fresh interpretation of the word “juvenile,” one based not only on the age but also on the mental and intellectual maturity of minor offenders.

“This case gave an opportunity to the nation to debate juvenile justice law, but the shrill and ­panic-causing reporting by the media sent a wrong signal to our society that the law allows criminals to get away easily and that it can harm social order,” said Anant Kumar Asthana, a lawyer who specializes in juvenile justice. He said he feared that the outrage surrounding the case could harm protections for juveniles who commit serious crimes that have been in place since 2000 but have been poorly implemented.

Child rights advocates have said the teenager was a victim of child trafficking and have called for a crackdown on child labor practices prevalent in India.

The teenager had dropped out of school and left his impoverished rural family in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh six years ago to work as a child laborer in a small restaurant in New Delhi. After some time, he moved on to become a bus cleaner and assistant, according to the police probe. Over the years, he stopped sending home money and his family assumed he was dead.

The teenager was a few months short of 18 at the time of the crime, according to his village school records.

Saturday’s three-year term includes the eight months he has already spent in the juvenile home since his arrest. He was also convicted of robbing a male carpenter the same night as the rape.

On Saturday, the juvenile court also said it will conduct periodic reviews of the teenager’s rehabilitation process.

In the past eight months, he has been kept in solitary confinement in the city juvenile home because wardens feared other inmates would attack him for his crime.

“There is a television with cable service in his room, and he usually watches soap and crime shows,” said a welfare officer at the home, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to reveal the information to the media. “A tailor has been teaching him how to sew. He can now sew buttons and hem.”

The trial of the other four accused is underway in a special fast-track court in another part of the city. Earlier this week, the prosecution concluded its arguments, and lawyers say verdicts are expected next month. The four could face the death penalty if convicted.

By Indian standards, both trials have progressed speedily. But many Indians horrified by the incident are already losing patience and want it to be swifter. In court, three of the adult accused have already retracted their initial statements to police, saying they were not on the bus at all that night.