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Indian gang-rape trial to stay behind closed doors

Pleas by lawyers defending five men accused of the rape and murder of a 23-year-old student were swiftly rejected by the court. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports from New Delhi

A woman protests outside the court where the accused in the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman are to be tried.
A woman protests outside the court where the accused in the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman are to be tried.

NEW DELHI // The trial of five men charged with the rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman on a bus began yesterday in a special court for crimes against women.

The court, which features expedited proceedings, was created to provide swifter justice for victims. Yesterday's hearing was adjourned after only 30 minutes, when the judge, Yogesh Khanna, rejected requests by defence lawyers to open the trial to the public and the media.

"This is a crime against society at large. Society has the right to know what happened," argued VK Anand, defence lawyer for one of the accused, the bus driver, Ram Singh.

After Judge Khanna ruled on the lawyers' motion, he set opening arguments for Thursday.

The five men are accused of luring a 23-year-old physiotherapy student and her male companion on to an out-of-service bus on the evening of December 16.

Prosecutors say they then raped and assaulted the woman, causing her massive internal injuries with a metal rod. She died of her injuries in a hospital in Singapore on December 29.

The accused - Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Thakur, as well as Mr Singh and his brother Mukesh - appeared in court for 15 minutes yesterday under heavy security. Their faces were concealed with woollen caps and scarves.

A sixth accused, a juvenile, will be tried in a separate court.

All the men have pleaded not guilty.

Ajay Prakash Singh, a lawyer, has filed a petition on behalf of Mr Sharma, one of the two accused he is representing, asking that he be tried as a juvenile.

Mr Sharma's mother lied about his age and increased it by a year to allow him to start school early, Mr Singh said. "Let them do the bone test to determine his age," the lawyer said.

Mr Singh also claimed Mr Sharma was not aboard the bus when the attack happened. He said his other client, Mr Thakur, was in the vehicle but was not involved in the assaults.

"My client was scared and hid under the seats," he said. "He loves his wife and child and if someone was attempting to rape, he would have saved her because he loves his family and values Indian cultural sentiments."

When asked about the accusations of assault with an iron rod and forensic evidence collected from the bus, including semen, Mr Singh said "anything can happen during a quarrel".

"There was no intention of murder, at most there was a chance of culpable homicide in a quarrel," Mr Singh said.

Under Indian law, those convicted of culpable homicide can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, while a murder conviction can carry the death penalty.

Prosecutors claim they have extensive forensic evidence linking all six men to the crime, including their mobile-phone records. They say they also have incriminating testimony from the woman and her male companion, as well as from witnesses who claim they saw the accused attempting to burn evidence of their crime. Defence lawyers say the evidence has been fabricated.

The rape and murder of the student have focused public attention on sexual crimes against women in India and on the inefficiencies and neglect of the judicial system.

There were 706 rapes reported to police in Delhi last year, an annual increase of 23.43 per cent, according to the city's police.

Of the 635 cases of rape reported in Delhi in 2011, only one resulted in a conviction.

Lawyers for two of the accused are expected to ask India's Supreme Court today to move the trial to Coimbatore, in the state of Tamil Nadu, or Shimla, in the state of Himachal Pradesh.

Citing the protests and negative media coverage, they say the accused cannot receive an impartial hearing in Delhi or in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the families of the female and male victim reside.

"Although the judge is very good, the circumstances of the public feeling and pressure for convicting the accused is great," said Mr Anand. "I am afraid my client will not receive a fair trial."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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