Preliminary hearings into the New Delhi gang rape case will be held privately, as yesterday’s first court appearance of the five accused intensified public anger at the assault.
“It has become completely impossible to proceed,” Magistrate Namrita Aggarwal said shortly before clearing the court and setting Jan. 10 as the next date of hearing. She said lawyers not directly involved in the case, the media and members of the public cannot be present at proceedings.
The decision yesterday came after the hearing was delayed for two hours as a group of lawyers denounced other advocates who volunteered to represent the defendants. About 25 police were unable to restore calm as more than 100 lawyers and journalists squeezed into a room with about 30 seats, with arguments and scuffles breaking out amid concerns for the safety of the accused.
Police said they have evidence linking the five to the abduction and murder of the 23-year-old physiotherapy student, a two-hour attack that sparked street rallies, government inquiries and the establishment of fast-track rape courts. A sixth person charged is appearing before a juvenile justice board as he’s under 18.
The gang rape of the woman on Dec. 16 provoked a sustained and charged debate about the safety of women in the world’s biggest democracy. What has united the nation in collective outrage is the brutality of the crime, allegations by a male friend of the victim that it took police 45 minutes to respond to calls, and comments from politicians and religious figures that appear to blame women for inviting a growing number of sexual assaults.
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 Jan. 4 began considering demands for faster trials and the suspension of lawmakers accused of sex crimes.
“Never before has there been an outpouring of emotion like this,” said Satish Misra, an analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi who has been following the South Asian nation’s politics for three decades. “All the political parties are going to come under pressure to show how they are responding.”
The magistrate yesterday presented the defendants with copies of the charge sheet, which includes rape, abduction and murder. The proceedings took place in a court about 100 yards opposite the upmarket mall where the women had watched a film before she was attacked on her journey home.
The friend of the woman, who was repeatedly raped and brutalized aboard the bus, has recounted the assault 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 officially 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.
“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 dumped on the road, 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.
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. The interview made it possible to identify the murdered woman, the police said.
The Sunday People, a U.K. tabloid newspaper, named the victim Jan. 6. The newspaper reported 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 the formal trial begins. Other fast-track courts have begun sitting in New Delhi.
The five men who appeared in court yesterday 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.
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.