Gang rape defendants make court appearance

Five men have appeared in court to face charges over the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi amid chaotic scenes that forced the hearing behind closed doors.

Prosecutor Rajiv Mohan said the men had been appointed a defence lawyer, but declined to comment on reports that two defendants reportedly offered to co-operate in return for more lenient sentences.

“The five have been provided with one counsel from the legal aid services,” he said following the hearing in the Saket district court complex in the south of the Indian capital.

The suspects, residents of New Delhi slums aged 19 to 35, were brought to the court complex from the capital’s high-security Tihar jail under high security due to fears for their safety after three weeks of protests.

“A charge sheet has been provided to the accused and the next hearing will be on Jan 10,” said magistrate Namrita Aggarwal, who is expected to transfer the case for trial in a higher fast-track court.

Aggarwal earlier ordered proceedings to take place behind closed doors after journalists and lawyers packed the tiny courtroom, which had chairs for about 30 people but was struggling to accommodate about 150.

Some lawyers protested while others argued over whether the suspects had a right to defence counsels after two Supreme Court advocates stepped forward offering to defend the men to ensure a fair trial.

“It has become completely impossible for the courtroom proceedings to proceed,” Aggarwal said in an order that forced all journalists and lawyers not connected with the case to vacate the room.

The accused, who could face the death penalty if convicted, face a string of charges including rape, murder, and kidnap. A sixth accused, who is 17, is to be tried in a juvenile court.

The next hearing has been set for Thursday and will also take place behind closed doors.

Though gang rapes are commonplace in India, the case has touched a nerve, leading to three weeks of introspection on India’s attitudes to women, its often insensitive police force and dysfunctional justice system.

It often takes years to bring a case to court, but the fast-tracked proceedings are getting under way barely a week after the medical student died of her injuries in a Singapore hospital.

India’s chief justice has ordered High Courts in each Indian state to set up new fast-track courts for sex crimes, saying the New Delhi case had “shaken the conscience of the nation”.

The victim, named as Jyoti Singh Pandey, had been out to watch a film with her boyfriend and was on her way home when she was lured onto a bus where the gang allegedly repeatedly raped her and violated her with an iron bar, causing enormous internal damage.

The defendants have been named as Ram Singh, a bus driver, his brother Mukesh Singh, gym assistant Vijay Sharma, labourer Akshay Thakur, and fruit-seller Pawan Gupta.

A court source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said two of the men had offered to become witnesses in an apparent bid to avoid the death penalty.

Mohan said he was unable to discuss their plans, but said no petition was “on the record”. It remains unclear if the prosecution would accept them in any case.

Outlining their evidence before the court in Saket on Saturday, prosecutors said there was DNA evidence to tie the defendants to the crime scene, as well as testimony from the boyfriend who witnessed the assault.

“The blood of the victim tallied with the stains found on the clothes of the accused,” Mohan said.

There have been calls for the attackers to be hanged, including from the victim’s family.

Police pledged “maximum security” during the hearing amid fears for the defendants’ safety. A man was arrested last week as he allegedly tried to plant a crude bomb near the home of one of the men.

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