Alleged ringleader in student's fatal gang rape that set off protests across India reportedly hanged himself in cell shared with three other men.
India rape suspect's lawyer says prison 'suicide' was foul play
NEW DELHI // Mystery surrounded the death in prison yesterday of the alleged ringleader in a student's fatal gang rape that set off street protests and impassioned debate about the treatment of women in India.
Ram Singh, who was accused of driving the bus on which the 23-year-old was attacked in New Delhi last December, hanged himself at around 5am, according to authorities at the city's Tihar Jail, where he was held.
But VK Anand, the lawyer who represented the 33-year old told The National yesterday that it was not suicide. "We suspect foul play, a conspiracy to kill him," he said.
Singh's death drew sharp criticism of the prison authorities and anger that he would not face justice for his alleged role in the attack.
Prison authorities said the three men sharing a cell with Singh slept through the incident, even as he used his clothes and part of his bedding to fashion a noose and kill himself.
"It is a major lapse in security," Sushilkumar Shinde, India's home minister, said. He added that security around the other four adults accused in the case would be boosted.
Vimla Mehra, the director general of Tihar Jail, said the prison had already submitted its report on the incident. The home ministry has additionally ordered an inquiry by a magistrate.
The prison authorities' explanation met with varying degrees of scepticism.
The defendants were being housed in separate buildings on the jail grounds. Initial reports claimed the five accused were under suicide watch, although the prison later denied this.
Mr Anand denied his client was suicidal.
"He had recently met his family and his adopted son," Mr Anand said of Ram Singh. "We are shocked to hear that he wanted to kill himself or was in that frame of mind."
Mange Lal Singh, Ram Singh's father, said his son had injured his arm a few years ago and could not have hanged himself with just one good arm. He said his son had been attacked and raped by inmates.
"I had met him six days [ago] at the court," Mr Singh said. "He had told me that his life is in danger."
Police have described Singh as the ringleader of five men and a juvenile on trial for the December 16 attack on the student physiotherapist. The assault triggered nationwide protests and a public demands for the toughening of rape laws. All six accused had pleaded not guilty to rape and murder.
Sex offenders and murderers in Indian prisons fall at the bottom of a hierarchy and they are commonly ostracised or brutalised by inmates.
But Singh would not have been part of such a hierarchy, said Kiran Bedi, a former inspector-general of prisons, because he was being held in one of the country's highest-security prisons.
"That sort of hierarchy exists in crowded barracks, where they tend to sort out the order of things themselves," she said.
Suicides in Tihar Jail, with a total inmate population of 13,000 are infrequent.
Ms Bedi said the prison administration needed to specify what "suicide watch" entailed.
In a paper published last April in the Delhi Psychiatry Journal, Anju Gupta and NK Girdhar, psychiatrists at the Tihar Jail hospital noted that 19 suicides had occurred since 2001, as per prison data.
The paper said, however, that "there might be underreporting of suicide which leads to [an] inaccurate suicide rate."
Mamta Sharma, chairperson of the National Commission for Women described Singh's death as "shocking."
"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," she said. "Maybe Ram Singh was in some kind of depression. There is now a huge question mark over the authorities of the prison, for allowing this to happen."
Manohar Lal Sharma, a lawyer who formerly represented Ram Singh's brother Mukesh in the rape case, claimed the death may even have been orchestrated by the police. "Since the very first day, I have been saying that the accused are being tortured in prison. Ram Singh was under torture every day," he said.
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."
* With additional reports from Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press