One of five adult men accused in the gang rape and murder of a young Delhi woman on a moving bus, a crime that galvanized a national movement against violence toward women, has committed suicide in his prison cell, according to jail officials.
Ram Singh, 33, hanged himself from the ceiling of his cell using an improvised rope made of his clothes and a blanket at around 5 a.m, Sunil Gupta, spokesman for Tihar Jail, said in an interview. His three cellmates slept through the suicide, according to prison officials.
The apparent suicide of the alleged ringleader in the bus attack is raising new questions about the competence of India’s criminal-justice system.
Mr. Singh was alleged to have been driving the bus on which the victim, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, and her male companion were lured on their way home from a movie on Dec. 16. Once on board, they were attacked by six men, the only other occupants of the bus; the woman was gang-raped and sexually assaulted with metal rods, and her companion badly beaten, and then they were dumped naked and bleeding by the side of the road. The woman died of her injuries in a Singapore hospital 13 days later.
Mr. Singh was alleged to have conceived of the plan to “have some fun.” According to police, he organized five friends to come with him on the bus he drove for a local school; his usual Sunday night “fun” routine involving drinking heavily and then using the bus to pick people up and rob them.
He and four of the other alleged assailants, including his brother and co-accused, Mukesh, are being held in the vast Tihar prison complex on the edge of Delhi while on trial in a newly created fast-track sexual-assault court. The sixth alleged attacker, a teenager, is being tried through a separate juvenile-justice process and is not being held at Tihar.
Mr. Gupta, the prison official, said that Mr. Singh was not on “suicide watch.” “There was no need – that was our assessment,” he said.
Mr. Singh’s family has rejected the idea that their son committed suicide and insists he was murdered in the jail. His father, Mangelal Singh, said his son had been raped in prison by other inmates and had been repeatedly threatened by inmates and guards. Nevertheless, he said he visited his son four days ago and his son appeared fine and gave no hint of depression or suicidal feelings. He also said that his son had a disability – his right hand was injured some years ago in a construction accident – that would have prevented him from being able to hang himself on the light grill in the cell, three metres up.
“Somebody has killed him,” Mangelal Singh told the Associated Press, adding that he was also worried about the safety of his son, Mukesh.
Ram Singh’s lawyer, V. K. Anand, said he last saw Mr. Singh on Friday when the accused had visited briefly with his five-year-old son at the courthouse and was in a “normal” and “very happy” state of mind. “[The accused] were very happy because the case is going smoothly and they knew they were in safe hands in prison,” Mr. Anand said.
Mr. Singh was being held in a small cell with three other men, apart from the general prison population – where hundreds of prisoners are kept in “barracks.”
The family of the victim, whose name has not been made public in accordance with Indian law, was besieged by media on Monday. Her father, a blue-collar worker who had sold his family’s small piece of land to put her and her brothers through school, said Mr. Singh had likely “hung himself in shame” and expressed anger that jail officials had “let him” hang himself before he faced the full force of the judicial process.
Mr. Singh was charged with rape, murder and kidnapping, and was widely expected to face the death penalty. Popular perception is that the evidence against the six men – who were arrested just 16 hours after the attack – was so compelling that none would be spared the death penalty.
At the time of the attack, the death penalty was awarded only in the “rarest of the rare” cases of murder. However in the wake of the popular uprising after the bus attack, the central government amended India’s law on sexual assault so that the death penalty can also be given to those convicted of “extreme” cases of rape.