Five men charged with the rape and fatal beating of a woman on a bus in New Delhi appeared before a court amid chaotic scenes that forced the magistrate to order a private hearing over concerns for the safety of the accused.
The five, all aged over 18, will be tried for abduction, rape and murder, among other charges, government prosecutor Rajiv Mohan said yesterday. The sixth accused, a juvenile, will be presented before a separate judicial panel today, he said. The police have submitted evidence including DNA test results of the accused to the court, he said by phone.
Before the men were brought before the court in the capital, lawyers and journalists jostled and argued, delaying the start of the hearing for two hours. As at least 25 police were unable to restore calm, magistrate Namrita Aggarwal ordered the court room be cleared and an in-camera session held.
“It has become completely impossible to proceed,” Aggarwal said. “There is apprehension about the safety of the under-trials present.” One group of lawyers from the local district area denounced other advocates, who stepped forward to defend the accused.
The assault on the woman and her male friend, which led to her death almost two weeks later, has triggered nationwide protests and forced the government to address demands for swifter justice, safer streets and heavier sentences in rape cases. India’s top court on Jan. 4 began considering demands for faster trials and the suspension of lawmakers accused of sex crimes amid the outpouring of anger.
“The only way to decrease such heinous crimes is by tougher law enforcement, which means an equal treatment of minor and major crimes,” said Dipankar Gupta, a former professor of sociology at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University. This would prevent “smaller criminals from graduating into more gruesome ones.”
The male friend of the woman, who was repeatedly raped and brutalized aboard the bus last month, has 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 a Jan. 4 interview with the Zee News television channel, the man, who along with the rape victim hasn’t been identified, described how they were lured on to the bus operating illegally on the night of Dec. 16 as they returned home from a movie theater in a southern neighborhood of the Indian capital.
The six men aboard the bus, “which had tinted windows and curtains, had laid a trap for us,” he told the channel. “They beat us up, hit us with an iron rod, snatched our clothes and belongings and threw us off the bus on a deserted stretch.” The woman, who was flown to Singapore for medical treatment, died in the hospital Dec. 29.
Police have charged the five men with raping and murdering the 23-year-old physiotherapy student. The sixth accused, who is under 18, faces a separate judicial process where sentencing is more lenient. That has brought calls from some of India’s states for the juvenile age limit to be lowered to 16.
“The bus occupants had everything planned,” the man said in the interview. “Apart from the driver and his helper, the others behaved like they were passengers. We even paid 20 rupees (36 cents) as fare. Then they started teasing my friend and it led to a brawl” that ended with an attack with an iron rod, he said. “Before I fell unconscious, they took my friend away.”
In revelations that will add to pressure on the government to overhaul policing in the city, the man who survived the attack told Zee News how officers took 45 minutes to arrive at the scene after the couple were thrown from the bus without clothes, with the drivers of several cars, rickshaws and motorbikes failing to stop to help. Police have since rejected the claim they took almost an hour to respond.
Once police did arrive, they failed to provide blankets and delayed taking the couple to a hospital as officers decided which station had jurisdiction in the case, he told the channel.
Zee showed images of the man sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a leg support.
After the interview was broadcast, police in the capital filed a criminal case against Zee News for revealing the identity of the man who was attacked, Rajan Bhagat, a spokesman for the force, said by phone. The interview made it possible to identify the murdered woman, he said, which is prohibited in rape cases.
Change in Attitude
The Sunday People, a U.K. tabloid newspaper, named the victim yesterday. The newspaper said the victim’s father said in an interview he wanted his daughter’s name made public so she would inspire victims of sexual assault, a claim he later denied.
A woman was raped every 22 minutes in India in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. There were 572 cases of rape reported in New Delhi that year, a 23 percent increase from 2008, the latest bureau data show. The rise may reflect a greater confidence in reporting assaults.
“The number of rape cases happening in India is unbelievable; some men feel they can get away with rape,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research. “At the moment the law does not act as a deterrent.” Only one in four rape cases results in conviction, she said.
Newspapers and television channels have reflected the public fury, dedicating front pages and hours of programming to discussions of the threats facing women in traditionally patriarchal India, where sexual harassment is regularly brushed off as the fault of the woman or dismissed as “eve teasing.”
Breaking with precedent, the rape case will be heard on a day-to-day basis once it begins. Other fast-track courts have begun sitting in New Delhi.
The five men who appeared in court today are Ram Singh, Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Akshay Singh and Pawan Gupta. Indian courts can hand down the death penalty for murder, while rape has a maximum sentence of life in prison.
India’s Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath said in a speech on Jan. 4 she wants the law changed so that judges can punish rapists with the death sentence.
“Cases of rape where the survivor is no longer able to enjoy a normal state of existence and functioning should have a provision for the death penalty,” Tirath said. “If the death penalty becomes the norm, this may reduce the conviction rate.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has appointed a retired Delhi High Court judge to investigate the crime and suggest ways to fix lapses in policing. He also asked a panel headed by a former chief justice to rewrite criminal codes to allow harsher penalties to be imposed, including capital punishment in the “rarest of rare” rape cases.
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