'Fast-track court' to take over New Delhi gang-rape case

NEW DELHI (AFP) - The case against five Indian men charged with the gang-rape and murder of a student was set to be moved to a fast-track court, after a lawyer said three of the accused would deny the charges.

The five are all due to make their second appearance before a district court in New Delhi after their first appearance on Monday was marred by chaotic scenes that led the presiding magistrate to order the court to be cleared.

A senior court officer said on Monday the case would be transferred to a fast-track trial court during Thursday's hearing, which would take place behind closed doors, as is standard here in rape cases.

Three of the accused will be defended by the lawyer M.L. Sharma, who has said his clients will plead not guilty when the case reaches the fast-track court.

The other two defendants have yet to get themselves a lawyer, while a sixth accused, who is 17, is to be tried in a juvenile court.

According to police, the group lured the 23-year-old woman and a male companion onto a bus in New Delhi after they had spent the evening at the cinema and were trying to go home.

They then took turns to rape the woman and violate her with an iron bar, as well as assault her partner before throwing them off the bus.

Speaking to AFP on Thursday, Mr Sharma said he would prove that his clients were not responsible for the attack on Dec 16, and he denied having tried to blame the victim.

In an interview with Bloomberg, he was quoted as saying the male companion of the murdered 23-year-old was "wholly responsible" for the incident, as the unmarried couple should not have been on the streets at night.

"Until today, I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady," he told the financial news wire. "Even an underworld don would not like to touch a girl with respect."

However, Mr Sharma told AFP that he had not been trying to smear the victim.

"I did speak to Bloomberg but did not say anything about the victim. I only told them that women are respected in India. They are mothers, sisters, friends, but tell me which country respects a prostitute."

Asked if that meant that he regarded the victim as a prostitute, Mr Sharma replied: "No, not at all, but I have to protect my clients and prove that they did not commit this heinous crime."

The victim died in a Singapore hospital, 13 days after the attack which triggered mass protests across India and soul-searching over the levels of violence against women.

The father of the victim, who could not be named for legal reasons, said in a television interview that he was proud of his daughter and believed her death had served as a badly needed wake-up call.

"She has brought an awakening to society. Society cannot any longer turn a blind eye to these sorts of incidences which are happening every day," he told Britain's ITV network.

"We have to change ourselves. If there are no change then these horrible things won't stop. The public have to wake up now."

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