Delhi gang-rape case heard behind closed doors

NEW DELHI (AFP) - An Indian court hearing the case of five men accused of gang-raping and murdering a 23-year-old student was cleared on Monday as chaotic scenes forced the hearing to be held behind closed doors.

The suspects were to be presented for the first time since the attack which took place on a bus on Dec 16, sparking protests in India and abroad as well as soul-searching about endemic violence against women.

But the court was closed after noisy protests from lawyers objecting to the suspects being given defence counsels, and a crush of local and foreign journalists straining to hear proceedings in the tiny room.

"People who have assembled and are present in the court not connected with the case have been asked to wait outside," magistrate Namrita Aggarwal said in a written order to reporters.

"It has become completely impossible for the courtroom proceedings to proceed."

The five men, aged 19 to 35 and mostly residents of New Delhi slums, were later produced before the magistrate, police officers said outside the courtroom, but AFP was unable to immediately confirm the information from court officials.

Earlier, several blue Delhi Police buses believed to be holding the men were seen driving into the Saket court complex in south New Delhi after jail authorities confirmed the suspects had been sent for their hearing.

The accused, who could face the death penalty if convicted, are charged with kidnap, robbery and conspiracy over the attack. A sixth accused, who is 17, is to be tried in a separate court for juveniles.

Though gang-rapes are commonplace in India, the case has touched a nerve, leading to three weeks of sweeping introspection on India's attitudes to women, its often insensitive police force and dysfunctional justice system.

It normally takes months for the prosecution to assemble such a case, but the fast-tracked legal proceedings are getting under way barely a week after the 23-year-old medical student died of her injuries in a Singapore hospital.

She had been out to watch a film with her boyfriend when they were lured onto a bus where the gang are accused of repeatedly raping and violating her with an iron bar, causing horrific internal damage.

The defendants have been named as Ram Singh, Mukesh Singh, Vijay Sharma, Akshay Thakur and Pawan Gupta.

Police have pledged "maximum security" during the hearing at the court amid fears for the defendants' safety. A man was arrested last week as he allegedly tried to plant a crude bomb near the home of one of the men.

In the order clearing the court room on Monday, the magistrate said there was "apprehension" about the safety of the accused.

Lawyers at the Saket court complex have decided to refuse to defend the accused and a group of them staged noisy protests against two Supreme Court advocates who have offered to serve as defence counsels.

"No person should be hanged without a proper trial," one of the Supreme Court lawyers present on Monday, M.L. Sharma, told AFP.

Legal experts say the magistrate Namrita Aggarwal will likely transfer the case to a higher court during Monday's hearing.

"The court will ask them if they have lawyers and then it will appoint an Amicus Curiae (lawyer) to represent them and supply copies of the charge sheet to the accused," said Mr Vishwender Verma, a senior advocate at Delhi High Court.

"The case will then be committed to a sessions court as a magistrates' court cannot try rape and murder cases."

Outlining their case before the same court in Saket on Saturday, prosecutors said there was DNA evidence to tie the defendants to the crime scene, as well as testimony from the boyfriend who witnessed the assault.

"The blood of the victim tallied with the stains found on the clothes of the accused," said Mr Rajiv Mohan, part of the prosecution team.

There have been widespread calls for the attackers to be hanged, including from the victim's family.

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