Five men accused of Indian gang rape formally charged
NEW DELHI (AFP) - Indian police formally charged five men with murder, kidnapping and rape on Thursday following the fatal gang-rape of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi which appalled the nation.
Police filed the charges and listed their evidence in a reportedly 1,000-page document submitted to a district court in the south of the capital, starting the process of bringing the men to trial.
The five suspects aged between 35 and 19, who would face the death penalty if convicted, were not present in the small courtroom when the media were allowed in to listen to part of the proceedings.
"We have filed the charge sheet against the five accused," an investigating police officer told a magistrate hearing the case in the Saket court complex.
The victim, a medical student from north India, was repeatedly raped and violated with an iron bar on a moving bus on December 16 as she returned from a cinema where she had watched a film with her boyfriend.
Protesters have massed in Indian cities daily since the assault to demand the government and police take sex crimes more seriously, with tougher penalties for offenders and even chemical castration among measures being considered.
The latest incident, though far from rare in a country where gang rapes are commonplace, has led to deep soul-searching in the media and the country's political class about the treatment of Indian women.
A statement from the Delhi victim, who died at the weekend from her injuries, and an account from her boyfriend, who was badly beaten during the attack, are expected to form crucial parts of the evidence against the five men.
A sixth suspect who is believed to be a minor aged 17 was not charged in the Saket court on Thursday. Detectives are awaiting the results of a bone test to verify his age and determine whether he can be tried in an adult court.
The next hearing has been set for Saturday. The trial has been fast-tracked to avoid the delays typical of India's dysfunctional justice system.
Altamas Kabir, the country's chief justice, has cautioned against letting public anger overwhelm the due process of the law.
"Let us not get carried away. A swift trial should not be at the cost of a fair trial," Kabir was quoted as saying in the local media on Thursday.
Lawyers at the district court in New Delhi have decided they will not defend the suspects, meaning the government will have to appoint advocates for them.
Several hundred protesters including lawyers gathered outside the court on Thursday demanding greater protection for women and improvements in the justice system.
"Why is there such a low conviction rate in India? Please judges, wake up!" said one banner.
Just 26 per cent of the 24,206 cases of rape registered in 2011 in India resulted in a conviction, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
Analysis of the Delhi gang-rape has focused on India's deeply patriarchal society, in which misogyny and sexism run deep and women are often treated as second-class citizens.
Amid a fierce national debate about the incident, women's rights groups have highlighted the difficulty rape victims face in dealing with social stigma and the police.
On December 28, it emerged that a 17-year-old girl had committed suicide after police allegedly tried to persuade her to drop a complaint of gang-rape and instead either accept a cash settlement or even marry one of her attackers.
Campaigners hope the Dec 16 attack will serve as a turning point, changing social attitudes and leading to greater sensitivity by the police.
A member of the ruling Congress party was detained in the northeastern state of Assam on Thursday after being accused of raping a girl in a remote village, police said.
In scenes played out on national television, village women were seen stripping the lawmaker, Bikram Singh Brahma, and repeatedly slapping him.
The government has set up three separate commissions to look into the New Delhi gang-rape and suggest changes in the law, with one minister suggesting new anti-rape legislation should be named after the unidentified victim.
The brother of the victim, speaking from the family's home village in Uttar Pradesh state, said they would not object if the government wanted to name a new law after her.
"It will be like a tribute in her memory," he told the Indian Express newspaper, while also pleading that the family be left alone to grieve.
A recent poll found India to be the worst in the G-20 group of nations for women because of child marriage, abuse and female foeticide, which has led to a badly skewed sex ratio in the country of 1.2 billion people.