x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Indian bus rape accused appear in Delhi court

Mystery surrounds the day's proceedings as defence lawyers are threatened with contempt of court if they reveal what happens at trial.

NEW DELHI // Five men accused of the gang rape and murder of a student on a bus in New Delhi appeared in court yesterday, their faces hidden behind scarves and woollen caps.

However, what happened during a hearing lasting nearly two hours was not clear.

Yogesh Khanna, the judge presiding over the trial in a fast-track court, imposed a gagging order on the proceedings.

Lawyers for the defence said the prosecution yesterday threatened to take action against them for contempt of court if they flouted the order.

Rape cases are usually held behind closed doors in India, but the judge approved an additional legal measure that prevented the media from reporting on the court proceedings, despite the high level of public interest in a case that has shocked the nation.

The defence lawyers had provided general details of previous proceedings after the court had adjourned.

Remarks by defence lawyers yesterday indicated that the prosecution may have made their opening statements yesterday.

"They spoke very well, very eloquently," Ajay Prakash Singh said of the two public prosecutors.

Mr Singh represents two of the defendants, Akshay Thakur, who worked as a cleaner on the bus, and Vinay Sharma, a gym assistant.

However, when asked specifically whether opening statements had been made, Mr Singh said: "We are under strict instructions to share no information."

The victim, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, was raped and tortured with an iron road on December 16.

She died 13 days later in a hospital in Singapore.

The five accused face a number of charges, including murder, rape, robbery and kidnapping. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.

One of the defence lawyers, Manohar Lal Sharma, said yesterday that he had withdrawn from the case. He had been representing Mukesh, the brother of the bus driver, Ram Singh.

Mr Sharma was one of the most vocal proponents of the innocence of the five men, accusing the police of fabricating evidence. He also said the victims male friend had caused the crime by starting a fight.

Mr Sharma said his client's family had asked him to withdraw from the case, saying that his statements had resulted in the police taking revenge on his client.

"The family members met me today and asked me not to represent him anymore," said Mr Sharma. "My client and his family are facing police torture and they think this is the best way to end it."

Mr Sharma's client will now be represented by VK Anand, one of the lawyers for his brother, Ram Singh.

India's supreme court was to examine a petition filed by Mr Anand to have the trial moved out of Delhi, where the lawyer said he feared that the "public and political pressure" would influence the trial. The supreme court will hear the petition on Tuesday.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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