NEW DELHI – The trial of five men accused of the rape and murder of a student aboard a bus in New Delhi will begin Thursday and should have none of the long delays commonly associated with India's justice system, a defense lawyer said after a brief hearing Monday.
Judge Yogesh Khanna denied a defense motion to make the proceedings public, ruling that the courtroom must remain closed because of the sensitive nature of the crime, said V.K. Anand, the lawyer for one of the defendants, Ram Singh.
The extreme brutality of the attack has sparked weeks of protests and focused national and international attention on India's rarely discussed crisis of violence against women. Monday's hearing was the first since the case was moved to a new fast-track court set up to deal specifically with crimes against women.
The five defendants' faces were covered by woolen scarves as they arrived in the court, surrounded by a phalanx of police. A sixth suspect in the attack claims to be a juvenile and his case is being handled separately.
The judge told the lawyers to prepare for opening statements to begin Thursday and agreed to a defense motion to hold the trial every day throughout the week, instead of allowing the gaps of weeks and months between hearings common in other courts, Anand said.
Defense lawyers are awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court on their motion to move the trial outside New Delhi because of the strong emotions in the city.
Police say the victim and a male friend were heading home from an evening movie Dec. 16 when they boarded a bus, where they were attacked by the six assailants. The attackers beat the man and raped the woman, causing her massive internal injuries with a metal bar, police said.
The victims were eventually dumped on the roadside, and the woman died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.
Lawyers for the accused say police mistreated their clients and beat them to force them to confess.
Another defense lawyer, A.P. Singh, asked the judge to allow a special bone test on one of his clients to ascertain whether he is also a juvenile, the lawyer said. The judge reserved his ruling, he said.
The attack has sparked demands for wholesale changes in the way the country deals with crimes against women. Many families pressure relatives who have been assaulted not to press charges, police often refuse to file cases for those who do and the few cases filed often get bogged down in India's court system, which had a backlog of 33 million cases in 2011.
In a sign of the sluggish pace of justice, only one of the 635 rape cases filed in the capital last year has ended in a conviction so far.
Police spokesman Rajan Bhagat cautioned that many other cases remained pending and said it was not realistic to expect crimes committed late last year to have wound their way through the system yet.
New Delhi set up five fast-track courts in recent weeks to deal specifically with sexual assault cases, and the rape case is being heard in one of them.
The courts are an important step for clearing some of the 95,000 rape cases pending in India, said Ranjana Kumari, a women's activist and director of the Center for Social Research, a New Delhi based think tank.
"We need a system in which women can get justice quickly. Otherwise, in the normal course of things, it can take 10 or 12 or 14 years for cases to be taken up by the court. That is tantamount to denying justice to the victim," she said.
Others, however, worried that fast-track courts sacrifice justice for speed, overlooking evidence and limiting the cross-examination of witnesses.
Vrinda Grover, a senior lawyer in the Delhi High Court and a women's rights activist, said the traditional court system needs to be overhauled — not abandoned — to give proper justice to rape victims.
"We don't want these cases of sexual crimes against women to become ghettoized in single courts. These cases have to be dealt with by across-the-board judges," she said. "What we need is that in all courts, these cases have to be taken seriously, and need to be addressed without granting unnecessary adjournments. And we need all judges and prosecutors to be oriented in this manner."
"These (fast-track-court) gimmicks do not work. They have not worked in the past," she said, adding that even these cases get bogged down once they go to appeals courts.
Kumari said victims could not afford to wait the decades it could take to reform the justice system.
"In the meantime, the fast-track courts are an absolute necessity," she said.