Trial in Indian gang-rape case begins

NEW DELHI -- Minutes after the suspects were whisked past reporters into a closed court, the high-profile trial of five men accused of the rape and murder of a 23-year old physiotherapy student opened Thursday.

The woman and her 28-year-old male friend, both officially unnamed, were attacked last month after they watched the film “Life of Pi” in a glitzy shopping mall and boarded what they assumed was an ordinary commuter bus heading home.

The curtains were then reportedly drawn and the two victims were beaten with metal rods. She was then raped so brutally that she suffered severe internal injuries. The two were dumped naked along the road and she died in a Singapore hospital two weeks later.

The case, being tried in a special fast-track court, has sparked massive protests, high-level government panels, accusations, calls for reform and widespread soul-searching on the treatment of women in the world’s largest democracy.

The content of opening arguments Thursday was not immediately known after Judge Yogesh Khanna denied a defense motion to make the proceedings public. Attorneys for the defendants had argued that secrecy wasn’t required because the victim was dead.


Prosecutor Dayan Krishnan reportedly warned defense attorneys this week that any of them who spoke to journalists would be slapped with a contempt-of-court notice.

Friday is a public holiday in India, so the next hearing in the case is scheduled for Monday, when the defense is expected to present its opening arguments.

A sixth suspect in the case is arguing that he is a juvenile. There’s still some question over his exact age in a nation where records are sometimes inexact and contradictory, but his case is likely to be heard in juvenile court.

Police Thursday were on alert around the courthouse and in hallways leading to the courtroom to prevent a legion of journalists from catching wind of the proceedings, in keeping with restrictions routinely applied in rape cases.

The trial’s opening follows Wednesday’s release of recommendations by a government panel on sexual crimes and women’s safety, which reviewed approximately 80,000 suggestions from human rights and women’s groups and the general public, an indication of the public passion in the case.

The commission, headed by J.S. Verma, a former chief justice, identified a “failure of governance” as the root cause of sexual crime.

Included in its suggestions: the streamlining of rape trials, changes in British-era regulations governing crimes against women (including doing away with humiliating physical exams of rape victims), and better enforcement of assault laws.

Although the commission didn’t recommend the death penalty for rapists, it called for tougher jail sentences -- up to and including “the rest of the convict’s natural life” in extreme cases.

Criminal justice officials said they would study the recommendations. “Procedural inadequacies that lead to inordinate delays need to be addressed,” Law Minister Ashwani Kumar told reporters.


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Tanvi Sharma in the New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.