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Third gang-rape accused to plead not guilty

Lawyer for bus driver says he will challenge the police evidence as his client intends to plead not guilty to all charges.

NEW DELHI // One of the men accused of gang raping and murdering a 23-year-old student in a moving bus in New Delhi will plead not guilty to all charges today, their lawyer said.

Ram Singh, the driver of the bus, is struggling to communicate and is fluctuating between crying and laughing, said his lawyer, Manohar Lal Sharma. Mr Sharma, who has also been appointed to represent Mr Singh's brother Mukesh and a third accused, Akshay Kumar Singh, who is unrelated, plans to challenge police over their handling of the evidence. He also said that other people may be arrested.

"I am confident that the men will be proved innocent because there are a number of problems with the police investigation," said Mr Sharma, a supreme court lawyer for the past two decades.

"This is a very complicated case and the matter has not been solved yet."

Police have said they have DNA evidence linking six men to the crime.

Mr Sharma's appointment came after chaotic scenes on Monday that forced the magistrate to order a private hearing over concerns for the safety of the accused.

Mr Sharma was one of two lawyers denounced by their fellow advocates for volunteering to represent the defendants. Arguments and scuffles over his offer led the magistrate to order the court room to be cleared and future sessions to be held behind closed doors.

The gang rape of the woman on December 16 provoked a sustained and emotionally charged debate about the safety of women in the world's biggest democracy. The brutality of the crime and allegations by a male friend of the victim that it took police 45 minutes to respond to calls outraged the nation.

The attack on the woman and her friend, which led to her death almost two weeks later, forced the government to address demands for swifter justice, safer streets and heavier sentences in rape cases. India's top court on Friday began considering demands for faster trials and the suspension of lawmakers accused of sex crimes.

Mr Sharma, speaking outside the supreme court building in central New Delhi, said he met the defendants for the first time on Monday for 15 minutes and would talk to them again. The three men he is representing put thumbprints on forms appointing Mr Sharma as their lawyer as they are illiterate.

Five of the six accused will be tried for abduction, rape and murder, among other charges, said Rajiv Mohan, a government prosecutor, on Sunday. The other has claimed to be a juvenile and has been appearing before a separate panel.

The male friend of the woman, who was repeatedly raped and brutalised aboard the bus, recounted the two-hour attack which ended with the couple being thrown on to the roadside, ignored by passersby and argued over by police. In an interview on Friday with the Zee News television channel, the man, who with the rape victim hasn't been officially identified, described how they were lured on to the bus as they returned home from a cinema.

The woman, who was flown to Singapore for medical treatment, died in the hospital on December 29.

Mr Sharma says there are number of discrepancies in the police's version of the events, which he will reveal in court. The only example he was willing to give is the failure of the police almost three weeks after the attack to determi=ne whether one of the accused is a juvenile.

Mr Sharma criticised the lawyers of a local district association who have said no advocates should represent the accused.

"These people are just seeking revenge," Mr Sharma said. "They are not seeking justice. A defendant has a right to a lawyer, this is a basic principle of a modern society."

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse