, NEW DELHI, Jan 21 – The trial of five men accused of the fatal gang-rape of a 23-year-old student on a New Delhi bus was set to open on Monday in a special “fast-track” court established to deliver speedy justice.
Emotions are still running high in India over the brutal attack on the student in mid-December that sparked violent street protests over the lack of safety for women and impassioned calls for harsher laws to punish rapists.
The five men face murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping and other charges, with prosecutors expected to demand the death penalty. A sixth suspect, who claims he is 17, will be heard by a separate juvenile court.
The trial is being held in a fast-track court to circumvent India’s notoriously slow and clogged up justice system, with the victim’s family leading widespread calls for quick closure on the horrifying case.
Proceedings are expected to begin at 2:30pm local time (0900 GMT), according to defence lawyer V.K. Anand.
At the weekend one of the accused, Mukesh Singh, asked the Supreme Court to move the trial out of New Delhi, saying he could not get a fair trial.
Anger over the killing “has gone into the root of each home in Delhi” and “he cannot get justice in Delhi”, said the petition.
However, lawyers said it was likely to be at least a week before the Supreme Court would hear the petition – if it agreed to consider it.
Defence lawyers say they will enter not-guilty pleas and accuse police of torturing the adult defendants – aged between 19 and 35 – to confess.
But prosecutors say they have DNA evidence linking the defendants to the attack in which the student and a male companion were assaulted on a bus as it was driven around the city, having been picked up after seeing a movie.
The prosecutors also have the victim’s hospital-bed declaration before her death and testimony from her 28-year-old companion who took part in identification parades after the ordeal.
Senior prosecutor Rajiv Mohan, who has vowed to seek the death penalty for the “heinous” crime, has said that “we have sufficient evidence against all the accused” to secure a conviction.
The woman, a promising student whose father worked extra shifts as an airport baggage handler to educate her, suffered massive intestinal injuries during the December 16 assault in which she was raped and violated with an iron bar.
She died 13 days later after the government airlifted her to a top Singapore hospital in a last-ditch bid to save her life.
Though gang-rapes and sexual harassment are commonplace in India, the case has touched a nerve, leading to an outpouring of criticism of the treatment of women in Indian society and an apparent rise in violent sex crime.
Sonia Gandhi, president of India’s ruling Congress party, used a keynote speech Sunday to condemn the “shameful” social attitudes that led to crimes like the fatal gang-rape.
“We cannot tolerate shameful social mindsets that lead to unspeakable atrocities on women and children… every woman in the country has the fundamental right to feel safe and secure,” Gandhi, the country’s most powerful politician, told her party.
The five adult suspects have already made several appearances in a city court in south New Delhi. Their case was transferred to the fast-track court for trial last week by a magistrate.
In the city court, proceedings were subject to a media blocking order that prevented journalists from revealing events inside the court room.
Defence lawyer V.K. Anand told AFP he would contest the reporting ban, saying “this trial should be transparent”.
India says it only imposes the death penalty in the “rarest of rare cases”. Two months ago, it hanged the lone surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks – the country’s first execution in eight years.
The student’s mother told a newspaper last week the “only thing that will satisfy us is to see them (the attackers) punished. For what they did to her, they deserve to die.”