Delhi gang rape suspects charged in India court

The BBC's Shilpa Kannan: "Some advocates have... volunteered to defend them"

Five men in Delhi have been formally charged with the abduction, gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman.

The magistrate ordered the preliminary hearing to be held behind closed doors after chaotic scenes as lawyers denounced one of their colleagues who had offered to defend the accused.

The next hearing will take place on 10 January. The trial is expected to be referred to a new fast-track court.

The case has shocked India and prompted a debate about the treatment of women.

At the scene

There could hardly be a more poignant place for this case to be happening. On the other side of the road from the Delhi court and the battalions of TV satellite trucks covering the trial is the cinema where the 23-year-old student and her friend watched the film Life of Pi on the evening of 16 December and then tried to get a taxi home.

After being turned down by several rickshaw drivers, they boarded a bus they thought was offering a legitimate passenger service.

It feels a lot more than three weeks ago now, with the protests and angry debate her rape and killing has started in India.

A wary police force spirited the five accused men into the court unseen - as a whole country now finds itself on trial.

The hearing comes as four policemen have been suspended over the handling of another suspected rape and murder case near Delhi over the weekend.

The father of a 21-year-old woman whose body was found on Saturday has told the BBC she was gang-raped.

He said police initially failed to react when he reported her disappearance, suggesting instead that she had gone off with someone.

The case has triggered protests in the Delhi suburb of Noida, where the woman was employed in a factory.

Two men have been arrested and a third suspect is reported to have fled.

Outcry

The five men were taken to the court in the Saket district of Delhi on Monday, where they were given the full list of charges against them, including abduction, rape and murder.

The hearing was initially supposed to take place in open court, but there were chaotic scenes as lawyers argued with each other over representation for the accused.

Magistrate Namrita Aggarwal adjourned the hearing, moving it behind closed doors.

It was not the most encouraging beginning to what the government has promised will be a fast-track legal process for this and other rape crimes, says the BBC's Andrew North, who has been outside the court in Saket.

The Saket district lawyers' association has refused to defend the accused because of the outcry the crime has provoked.

India's fast-track courts

  • Some 1,200 fast-track courts are operating in India as of March 2012
  • In Delhi, six fast-track courts are to be set up for the trial of cases related to crimes against women, especially rape. Some other states such as Punjab and Maharashtra are also setting up fast-track courts for this purpose. India has previously had fast-track courts to deal with terror cases and other crimes
  • In 2000, central government started a scheme for more than 1,700 fast-track courts to try to clear the backlog of cases clogging up the Indian judicial system, partly related to a shortage of judges. By March 2011, these courts had disposed of more than three million criminal cases
  • Funding is an issue because the central government said it could no longer fund them after March 2011, leaving future funding decisions to individual states.

A van carrying the five suspects has now left the court, our correspondent says.

A sixth suspect, who is thought to be 17, will be tried separately in a youth court if it is confirmed he is a minor.

If convicted, the suspects could face the death penalty. Prosecutors have said they have extensive forensic evidence.

The five accused have been named as Ram Singh, his brother Mukesh, Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Thakur.

Two of the suspects have offered to give evidence, possibly in return for a lighter sentence.

The victim and a male friend were attacked on a bus in south Delhi on 16 December. She died two weeks later in a hospital in Singapore.

Campaigners are calling for tougher rape laws and reforms to the police, who - critics say - often fail to file charges against accused attackers.

The victim's father has denied weekend reports in a British newspaper that he wanted his daughter's name published.

He told BBC Hindi last week that he would have no problem with her name being used on a new law against rape.

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