Indian gang-rape accused appear in Delhi court

Five men accused of rape and murder of 23-year-old woman hear charges against them amid rowdy courtroom scenes

Five Indian men accused of the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year old woman have appeared before a magistrate to hear charges against them.

But rowdy scenes in the packed courtroom delayed hearings for much of the day and raised concerns over the capacity of India's creaking judicial system to deal with such a sensitive and high-profile case.

The five men, along with a teenager, are accused of raping a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a bus in New Delhi. She died two weeks later on 28 December in a Singapore hospital from her injuries.

The case provoked outrage in India and around the world with protests continuing on Monday. Local authorities have proposed a range of measures aiming to make the country safer for women, ranging from more CCTV cameras to gender sensitisation lessons for schoolchildren.

But another alleged gang-rape and murder over the weekend in Noida, a satellite city east of Delhi, has led to fresh protests and further accusations that the police do not take such offences seriously.

Monday's court hearing took place amid chaos and confusion after police failed to restrict access to the courtroom and rows broke out between local lawyers over whether or not the men should be defended.

A blue police van brought the five defendants from Delhi's high security Tihar jail in the morning, but after long delays, the magistrate, Namrita Aggarwal, ordered police to clear the room and that the hearing be held behind closed doors. Media organisations are seeking to reverse the order amid confusion over whether it would apply to the entire trial.

The case is being heard by a newly created "fast-track court", set up to allow speedy justice. Legal proceedings in India often involve years, even decades, of delay.

A teenager who is also accused is expected be tried separately in a juvenile court. There is growing support in India for legal changes to allow the suspect, believed to be 17 years old, to face a harsher sentence than the maximum of three years' imprisonment he could expect if convicted. But there was confusion over the youth's exact age with judges at the juvenile court asking for further evidence at a pre-trial hearing on Monday.

Two of the defendants are reported to have said they are willing to testify against the other men, but police have rejected the request, according to local media.

Legal experts have already raised concerns about the standards observed in the trial. Although they have been held for more than three weeks and repeatedly interrogated by police, the defendants still do not have defence lawyers, who will be assigned by the court before the trial begins in around a week.

Members of the bar association in the South Delhi district where the case is being heard vowed not to represent them and physically fought with lawyers proposing their services in the courtroom.

But experts warn that a lack of representation for the accused so far could give grounds for appeal later should they be found guilty. Similar cases have resulted in acquittals years after convictions.

"The accused has a right to a lawyer from point of arrest – the investigations are going on, statements being taken, it is totally illegal," said Colin Gonsalves, a senior supreme court advocate and director of Delhi's Human Rights Law Network.

A government panel is considering suggestions to make the death penalty mandatory for rape and introducing forms of chemical castration for the guilty. It is due to make its recommendations by 23 January. Official data shows one rape is reported on average every 20 minutes in India.

India set up 1,700 fast-track courts in 2004 but stopped funding them in 2012 because they turned out to be costly. The courts typically work six days a week and try to reduce adjournments that lead to long delays in cases.

"The record of the fast-track courts is mixed," Gonsalves said. Conviction rates rose, he said, but due process was sometimes rushed, leading to convictions being overturned.


Jason Burke in Delhi

The GuardianTramp

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