Accused pair to 'turn witnesses' for gang-rape trial

Two of the five men charged with murder of Indian student attempt to avoid death penalty

Delhi

Two of the men allegedly involved in the rape and murder of an Indian medical student have said they are ready to turn state's witnesses – apparently in an attempt to avoid the death penalty.

Four of five men charged with the murder and gang-rape of the 23-year-old were brought before a court in Delhi today, where two of them indicated their readiness to appear for the prosecution. According to the Press Trust of India, Pawan Gupta, 19, a fruit vendor, and Vinay Sharma, 20, a fitness trainer, refused to accept the services of legal aid counsel and instead expressed their willingness to act as witnesses.

Two other defendants, a 33-year-old bus driver Ram Singh and his brother Mukesh, 26, asked the court to provide a lawyer to defend them after the local lawyers' association refused to act on their behalf.

The four defendants, along with a fifth man, Akshay Singh, 24, a bus washer, are today due to be brought before a judge who will send the case to a fast-track court set up specially to deal with it. A sixth male is scheduled to be dealt with by a juvenile court because he claims he is only 17.

"All the accused persons were informed that they can seek legal aid in the case, if they have not engaged any counsel," Jyoti Kler, a magistrate, told a hearing to which the men were brought yesterday so their custody in jail could be extended. "Accused Pawan and Vinay have refused to take service of the legal aid counsel and have submitted that they want to become witnesses on behalf of the state."

The attack on the medical student and her male friend on 16 December, and her subsequent death in a hospital in Singapore, where she was sent for specialist treatment, has gripped India and sparked an unprecedented debate about the country's attitudes towards women and the frequency of sexual harassment and attacks. The government has been obliged to set up a commission to look into the issue and tighten punishments for rapists.

Tonight the father of the murdered student denied that he wanted his daughter's name to be made public after it was published by a British tabloid. Under Indian law, individuals who have been raped cannot be identified by the media unless they give their permission or, if they are dead, their family agrees.

The Sunday People newspaper, had reported that he said: "Revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks. They will find strength from my daughter." However, the Hindustan Times said the father only wanted her identity to be made public if a tougher law for crimes against women was named after her.

The developments followed a decision by the police to file charges against an Indian television channel that broadcast an interview with the gang-rape victim's male companion, in which he severely criticised the police response to the attack.

In the interview with Zee News, the man, who was not named, condemned officers and the public for failing to come to the aid of himself and his friend after they were stripped naked and thrown from a moving bus.

It is claimed the police took up to 45 minutes to reach the scene and then fought over which unit had jurisdiction.

"They were just watching us. My friend was bleeding profusely. I was more concerned about her," the young man said. "But instead of taking us to a nearby hospital, [the police] took us to a hospital that was far away. The policemen didn't help us because my friend was bleeding profusely and they were probably worried about their clothes."

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