x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The trial that is changing India

Outrage over the death of a student who was tortured and raped on a New Delhi bus has already resulted in new laws and more severe punishments for violent and sexual crimes against women.

An artists works on a banner calling for the death sentence for rapists during the one-month anniversary of the gang rape and murder of a student in New Delhi.
An artists works on a banner calling for the death sentence for rapists during the one-month anniversary of the gang rape and murder of a student in New Delhi.
NEW DELHI // For much of this year, four men accused in a high-profile rape and murder trial have appeared in a tiny courtroom in New Delhi that barely seats 30 people.

They sit in the last row of chairs, separated from each other by police officers.

In this fast-track court, it is a trial that has already changed India.

The horrifying details of what happened on the night of December 16 last year were reported around the world.

A 23-year-old woman was tortured and gang raped on a moving bus in Delhi. Her naked body and that of her male companion were then dumped on the side of a road. She later died of her injuries.

The case has already resulted in the laws of the land being rewritten, prompting the government to introduce tougher penalties for rapists and those who commit any violent crimes against women.

Even the fast-track court is part of that legacy, created after a public outroar over the length of time - often several years - it usually takes to prosecute such cases.

Now the defendants face an army of witnesses who testify against them almost every day, as protesters gather outside the courthouse demanding they be denied a trial and be publicly hanged.

Six people were charged with robbery, rape and murder. One is a juvenile who is being tried in a separate court. There were five defendants when the trial began in January but the key accused, Ram Singh, was found dead in his cell in March. The authorities ruled his death was a suicide.

Vinay Sharma, another of the accused, has appeared in court for the past month with his right arm in a cast after he was allegedly beaten by fellow inmates.

While he often speaks to his lawyers, Mukesh, Ram Singh's brother, and the other two men, Akshay Thakur and Pawan Gupta, have been silent spectators at the trial.

The judge, Yogesh Khanna, lifted a publication ban on March 22, ending the threat of legal action against media reporting on events in the courtroom. There are 80 witnesses in the case, including doctors, police officers and members of the public.

Last month, a female police officer told the court that she had spoken to the victim as she was being wheeled from a hospital ward to the operating room.

"I tried to talk to her," she said. "She was not able to speak clearly but she could answer my questions. She told me what had happened."

The officer said she met the victim's parents and convinced the doctors that the mother should be allowed to see her daughter.

Another police officer was on the stand for days last month as the defence tried to prove allegations by Mr Thakur and Mukesh Singh that they had been beaten in custody by police.

There are also those who want to see defendants cleared.

Kalyani Devi and Mangelal Singh, the parents of Ram and Mukesh Singh, wait each day outside the courtroom to see their sons after the day's proceedings.

On one occasion, after Mrs Devi made her way to see Mukesh at the back of the courtroom, her son gently touched his mother's feet in a sign of reverence.

The family huddled for a quick minute. As she left her son's side, Mrs Devi planted a kiss on his cheek.

Mukesh turned away, smiling but embarrassed at his mother's gesture of love. She ran her fingers through his hair. He quickly touched his parents' feet again before they said their goodbyes.


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