A blurred shuffle of bodies behind a line of policemen marked the arrival and departure of five men accused of the rape and murder of an Indian student when they were yesterday brought to court to have charges levelled against them.
The men, wearing grey hats, were bustled into the second-floor courtroom in Delhi after a judge took the controversial decision that the hearing had to be held in private after earlier, chaotic scenes were deemed to have disrupted proceedings. Barely 30 minutes later, the accused were led out of the court, loaded aboard a blue police bus and taken back to the city’s Tihar jail, having been given a list of over 10 charges they face.
“The case has been adjourned until January 10. They have been given a copy of the charge-sheet,” metropolitan magistrate Namrita Aggarwal told reporters at the conclusion of the in camera hearing.
Earlier, the judge had barred the media and members of the public after raucous scenes that had seen different lawyers arguing nosily between themselves over whether or not the five men deserved to receive a legal defence. She said concerns had also been raised by the prosecutor about the safety of the five accused.
“An unprecedented situation arises when members of [the] bar and public persons not connected with the case have started converging [on] the courtroom,” Ms Aggarwal had said in a statement. “The courtroom has become jam-packed with lots of disturbance created from different nooks and corners.”
She added: “It has become impossible to proceed in the case. I am passing [an] order for in camera proceeding. It shall not be lawful to print and publish any article in the media without court permission.”
The savage 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 rare debate about the country’s attitudes towards women and the frequency of sexual attacks.
In the aftermath, the authorities have established a series of fast-track courts to deal with rapes, the first of which will hear the trial of the five men - Pawan Gupta, 19, a fruit vendor, Vinay Sharma, 20, a fitness trainer, 33-year-old bus driver Ram Singh, his brother Mukesh, 26, and Akshay Singh, 24, a bus washer.
A previous hearing was told that Mr Gupta and Mr Sharma have declined to seek the services of legal aid counsel and instead expressed their willingness to act as witnesses or “approvers”, apparently in an effort to escape the death penalty. A sixth male accused of involvement in the attack on the student is said to be aged 17 and is due to be dealt with by a juvenile court.
Such has been the reaction to the case that lawyers from the bar association in the Saket neighbourhood of Delhi where the case is being heard, have announced none of their members will represent the accused. Yesterday, some such-minded lawyers held angry exchanges with others, who were trying to offer their services as defence counsel.
“I want to offer my services to the court to represent the accused if they have no counsel,” said VK Anand, one of the lawyers who was on the receiving end of negative comments. Another lawyer, Manohar Lal Sharma, said justice demanded that even those accused of the worst crimes received a legal defence.
There will be intense pressure on the authorities to ensure the trial proceeds as smoothly and as transparently as possible. After Ms Aggarwal announced she was invoking section 327 of India’s so-called criminal procedure code to hold the hearing and subsequent trial in camera, appeals against the decision were filed with another court. A hearing on that issue is due to take place on Wednesday, according to the Press Trust of India.