Photo: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri
The trial of five men accused of the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student last month will be held behind closed doors, a judge in Delhi said on Wednesday, upholding an order imposed by a magistrate after chaotic scenes at a hearing earlier this week.Media organisations had protested against the decision, and a lawyer representing the victim’s male friend – who was also injured in the attack – submitted an application for the order to be overturned, arguing “the whole nation is interested in knowing the proceedings of the case“.
The case has caused anger and outrage in India and highlighted the problem of sexual violence towards women in the country, triggering widespread protests and continuing calls for major legal and policing reforms.
Public faith in the courts is already weak and the police are widely distrusted in India. Saikat Datta, a senior Indian journalist, said the decision to hold the trial in camera was “a disturbing move” that would mean “citizens cannot see how their justice system functions”.
“The judiciary, like the legislature and the executive, is a key pillar that ensures the good health of a democracy. They must be seen to work and, therefore, must work in a transparent manner,” Datta said.
The five accused appeared in a magistrates court earlier this week and were given details of the charges against them, which include rape, murder, banditry and abduction.
The men, who include a bus driver, a cleaner and a part-time gym instructor, are accused of luring the two victims on to a bus on 16 December.
After being repeatedly assaulted, the pair were dumped on the roadside. The woman, who has not been named in local media, died two weeks later, on 28 December, in a Singapore hospital from internal injuries sustained during the attack.
A teenager who is also accused is likely to face separate proceedings in a juvenile court, but 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 the court could hand out.
Three of the accused will plead not guilty at their forthcoming trial, their lawyer has said.
Mohan Lal Sharma, an advocate, said he had been formally appointed by three of the accused as their defence lawyer. “They will plead not guilty to the charges levelled against them in the charge sheet. They want to face the trial,” he told the Indian Express. Police have rejected an offer by two of the defendants to become state witnesses.
The case is being heard by a newly created fast-track court, set up to allow speedy justice. Legal proceedings in India, particularly for offences such as rape, often involve years, even decades, of delay.
The country’s chief justice, Altamas Kabir, has said the huge delays may be one reason contributing to the surge in violence towards women in recent years. Some Indian judges have tens of thousands of cases pending.
A further hearing is scheduled on Thursday.
Amid an unprecedented debate over cultural attitudes to women, authorities, heavily criticised for their slow response to the incident, have proposed a range of measures aiming to make the country safer for women. These range from more CCTV cameras in city centres to gender sensitisation lessons for schoolchildren. Continuing reports of other attacks on women around the country – few of which would have received much attention even a month ago – underline the scale of the problem.
Official data shows one rape is reported on average every 20 minutes in India. 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.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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