One of the main accused in the Delhi gang-rape case committed suicide in his prison cell this morning, according to prison authorities.
Ram Singh, the driver of the bus on which a 23-year-old student was raped and fatally assaulted last December, hanged himself at around 5am, a statement from the authorities in New Delhi's Tihar Jail said.
The death of Mr Singh, 33 years old, has drawn sharp reactions, ranging from criticisms of prison staff for not monitoring inmates closely enough to theories that he was murdered by the police.
"This is not a suicide," V K Anand, Mr Singh's lawyer, told The National. "He was kept in isolation, with at least four special guards posted outside his cell. We suspect foul play, a conspiracy to kill him."
For their own safety, Mr Singh as well as his four co-accused - including his brother Mukesh - had been placed in a heavy-security zone of the prison, prison authorities had told the media earlier this year. The five accused were kept under "suicide watch."
According to details released by prison authorities, Mr Singh fashioned a noose for himself out of his clothes and his blanket.
"The Home Ministry has sought a report from the Delhi Police and there is already an inquiry by Tihar Jail," RPN Singh, India's deputy minister for home affairs, said in a statement. "We are looking into the entire matter."
The grandfather of the rape victim told The National that he hoped that "justice will be delivered for the rest of the accused."
"Our case is so strong that I think the accused knew they would get the death sentence," he said. "It was only a matter of time, maybe three or six months from now, they would have been hanged for what they did"
As per Indian law, the names of rape victims cannot be revealed by the media.
The gang-rape raised an enormous storm of protest across India. Through the second half of December and much of January, protests erupted in New Delhi's streets, decrying the lack of security provided to women in urban India.
The prevailing sentiment in favour of swift punishment for the perpetrators of the gang-rape spelled out a bleak future for Mr Singh and his fellow accused.
Kiran Bedi, a retired police officer who once served as inspector-general of prisons, said on Twitter: "When a prison inmate loses hope & knows he has no chance of getting away he does look for opportunities to take his own life inside jail!"
The Tihar Jail authorities have come under fire for being too lax in their observation of suicide-watch prisoners.
"It's shocking," Mamta Sharma, chairperson of the National Commission for Women, told The National. "There are always suicidal cases in prisons, so one has to question why the jail administration didn't take the necessary precautions to avoid an incident like this."
"Maybe Ram Singh was in some kind of depression," Ms Sharma added. "Regardless, though, there is now a huge question mark over the authorities of the prison, for allowing this to happen."
But others have expressed views that are darker than mere negligence.
Mr Anand said his client had expressed satisfaction, only two days ago, at the progress of the trial.
"He had recently met his family and his adopted son," Mr Anand said. "We are shocked to hear that he wanted to kill himself or was in that frame of mind."
Manohar Lal Sharma, an advocate who formerly represented Mr Singh’s brother Mukesh, also contended that foul play was involved.
"This is murder," Mr Sharma told The National. "Since the very first day, I have been saying that the accused are being tortured in prison. Ram Singh was under torture every day."
Mr Sharma said that the case had come under such intense scrutiny that it had been politicised, with the Delhi government as well as the federal government under pressure to deliver some results to the public.
"The death of Ram Singh will ease the tension and the anger of the public, to some extent," Mr Sharma said. "But now I fear for the safety of Mukesh. I don't think he is safe. Nobody is safe."