NEW DELHI – The trial of five men charged with the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a New Delhi bus began in a closed courtroom Thursday with opening arguments by the prosecution lawyers in a special fast-track court set up just weeks ago to handle sexual assault cases.
The brutal attack last month set off protests across India and opened a national debate about the epidemic of violence against women. A government committee established in the wake of the attack has called for a complete overhaul of the way the criminal justice system deals with rape, sexual assaults and crimes against women in general.
The five men on trial — who face a maximum sentence of death by hanging if convicted — covered their faces with woolen caps as they walked into the courtroom Thursday surrounded by a phalanx of armed police. Two hours later, after proceedings were over, they were whisked away by the police.
Details of the day's proceedings were not available. The courtroom was closed to the public and the media — a routine move in Indian rape cases — even though defense lawyers had argued that since the victim is dead, the proceedings should be opened. There was also a gag order on the lawyers to not reveal what happened inside the court.
Judge Yogesh Khanna turned down requests by journalists Thursday that they be briefed on the day's proceedings and said the gag order would remain.
Since Friday is a public holiday in India, the next hearing in the case was set for Monday, when the defense will present its opening arguments.
A sixth suspect in the case has claimed he is a juvenile and is expected to be tried in a juvenile court.
On Thursday, a magistrate separately rejected a petition by Subramanian Swamy, a prominent politician, that no leniency be shown toward the accused who claims to be a juvenile because of the brutal nature of the crime, said Jagdish Shetty, an aide to Swamy.
Documents presented by prosecution last week to the Juvenile Justice Board indicated that the defendant was a juvenile at the time of the attack, which would make him ineligible for the death penalty.
Magistrate Geetanjali Goel is expected to rule on the suspect's age on Jan.28.
The suspect, who is not being identified by The Associated Press because he says he is 17, would face three years in a reform facility if convicted as a juvenile.
After the fast-track court hearing, M.L. Sharma, a defense lawyer for Mukesh Singh, one of the accused, said he had withdrawn from the case. V.K. Anand, who represents Mukesh's brother Ram Singh, will now defend both brothers. The two lawyers had been arguing over who was Mukesh Singh's real lawyer.
Sharma said he left the case to save his client from being tortured to fire him. He has long maintained that the other defense lawyers were planted by the police to ensure guilty verdicts.
Dozens of police were outside the sprawling court complex in south New Delhi where the trial is taking place. Inside the court, about 30 policemen blocked access to the room where Khanna heard the prosecution's case.
Outside the courtroom scores of journalists and curious onlookers crowded the hallway.
Prosecutor Dayan Krishnan warned defense lawyers that if they spoke to journalists he would slap contempt of court notices on them, said V.K. Anand, a defense lawyer.
Police say the victim and a male friend were attacked after boarding a bus Dec. 16 as they tried to return home after an evening showing of the movie "Life of Pi." The six men, the only occupants of the private bus, allegedly beat the man with a metal bar and raped the woman with it, inflicting massive internal injuries to her, police said. The victims were dumped naked on the roadside, and the woman died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.
Abhilasha Kumari, a New Delhi-based sociologist, said the attack could end up having a large impact on the country.
"This case has brought the violence against women center stage and it has, out of sheer public pressure, forced the government to sensitize itself to crimes against women," she said.
The trial began a day after a government panel recommended India strictly enforce sexual assault laws, commit to holding speedy rape trials and change the antiquated penal code to protect women.
The panel appointed to examine the criminal justice system's handling of violence against women, received a staggering 80,000 suggestions from women's groups and thousands of ordinary citizens.
Among the panel's suggestions were a ban on a traumatic vaginal exam of rape victims and an end to political interference in sex crime cases. It has also suggested the appointment of more judges to help speed up India's sluggish judicial process and clear millions of pending cases.
Law Minister Ashwani Kumar said the government would take the recommendations to the Cabinet and Parliament.
"Procedural inadequacies that lead to inordinate delays need to be addressed," he told reporters.