Murder Charges Filed in Delhi Rape Amid Calls for Swift Justice

Police formally charged with murder five men accused of gang-raping a woman aboard a bus in New Delhi, an attack that triggered outrage and demands for a rapid overhaul of how sexual assaults are prosecuted in India.

Additional charges of rape and kidnapping were also filed in a district court in the Indian capital yesterday. A sixth person is a juvenile and will be subject to a separate judicial process. The men are accused of beating and assaulting the 23-year-old physiotherapy student on Dec. 16 before throwing her and a male companion from the vehicle as it drove along streets in the south of the city.

The woman’s death nearly two weeks later in a Singapore hospital fueled street demonstrations demanding the government and police crack down on sex crimes, speed up the prosecution of alleged rapists and toughen sentencing. A panel headed by the Supreme Court Chief Justice Altamas Kabir is expected to hear a petition seeking the forming of fast-track courts in all states to handle serious sexual offenses.

“In this case the government is reacting exceptionally fast because of public protests,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research. “There should be change in our legal system so that other victims, who are waiting for justice, get similar treatment.”

Breaking with precedent, the rape case will be heard on a day-to-day basis once it begins in a bid to meet calls for swift justice. Other fast-track courts will begin sitting in New Delhi this week.

The five men charged yesterday are Ram Singh, Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Akshay Singh and Pawan Gupta. No further details were immediately available.

Brutal Assault

“It will be our endeavor to ensure the harshest punishment in the book for the culprits,” Dharmendra Kumar, special commissioner of police, said Dec. 29, hours after the death of the woman, who hasn’t been named.

In a sign of the anger the rape has triggered, about 200 lawyers staged a demonstration yesterday outside the court where charges will be brought, calling for the death sentence for those accused of the assault.

Saket District Bar Association President Rajpal Kasana said no member from the bar association would represent the men. The government may provide lawyers from other courts, Kasana said.

On the eve of the court filing, new details emerged of the brutal assault that has triggered weeks of soul-searching in New Delhi and beyond.

Silent March

The victims boarded the bus without knowing it was plying illegally, the Press Trust of India news agency reported, citing interviews with police officers it did not name. The suspects first attacked the 28-year-old man and when the woman intervened to protect him, she was beaten and sexually assaulted, it said.

After throwing both from the bus, the driver attempted to run them down, the agency reported. The assailants told police they had raped the woman “to teach her a lesson” after she fought back in a confrontation, the Indian Express said Dec. 19.

The woman, who was flown to Singapore for treatment paid for by the Indian government, died in hospital Dec. 29. She was cremated a day later and her ashes have been submerged in the Ganges river, considered holy by India’s Hindu majority.

The doctor who carried out the postmortem in Singapore will be among 30 witnesses the police plan to cite in the charge sheet, Press Trust said Jan. 2.

Bloated Courts

The attack, blanket media coverage and the continuing demonstrations have thrust crimes against women to the top of India’s political agenda. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit Jan. 2 led a silent march in the capital.

“We have already seen the emotions and energies this incident has generated,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in an e-mailed statement Dec. 29. It’s up to all Indians to “ensure that her death will not have been in vain.”

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.

The government Jan. 1 announced a 13-member task force headed by the secretary of the home ministry to examine the safety of women in Delhi on a regular basis. Dikshit’s government has opened a telephone helpline to help women in distress.

Indian courts can hand down the death penalty for murder, while rape has a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Typically in India it takes years for ordinary Indians to get justice because of a slow-moving legal process and overburdened courts. About 63,342 cases were pending in the Supreme Court as of July 31, of which 67 percent have been in process for more than a year, government data show.