Five of the six men accused of the savage and fatal December rape of a young Delhi woman were brought to court Monday in a rushed prosecution of the crime that has fixated India.
But the circus at the court – where hundreds of police officers, a crush of journalists and a clutch of protesting lawyers all attempted to cram into the small hearing room – so exasperated the judge that she declared all further proceedings would be held in camera.
“The courtroom is jam-packed with a lot of disturbance from different nooks and corners,” said Metropolitan Magistrate Namrita Aggarwal. “It has become completely impossible to carry out proceedings in this manner.” She had the courtroom forcibly cleared.
Much of the disruption came from lawyers: There is a sharp divide in the legal community over whether the accused should be given defence counsel.
The 13,000 members of the bar association serving this city court have collectively promised not to represent them. And on Monday a group of female lawyers loudly claiming the accused men have no right to counsel came to the court as a delegation, where they clashed with a small group of male lawyers, some of whom had offered to defend the accused in the interests of providing a fair trial. The accused will be assigned legal aid lawyers if they are not able to hire independent defence counsel.
The matter was adjourned until Thursday, the magistrate later told reporters. She said the five men had received the charge sheet listing their alleged crimes, which include rape and murder. It is not yet clear whether the government will seek the death penalty. That sentence is reserved for what India’s laws call the “rarest of the rare” crimes, and there has been strong public demand for it in this case.
The sixth accused has said he is under 18 years of age and so will be tried in the more lenient juvenile justice system unless police and prosecutors can prove he is an adult – which they are now attempting to do by calling his former school principal, among others, as witnesses. Police have not as yet provided a timeframe for his prosecution.
The five other suspects are being held in the massive Tihar Jail on the edge of Delhi, where they are being held under tight police protection. Police say they fear for the men’s safety and must protect them from vigilante attacks.
The in camera order bars anyone not directly connected to the case from attending the trial and may curtail some of the feverish media coverage it has been receiving here.
The victim, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, was returning home from a movie with a male friend on a Sunday evening when they caught what they thought was a city bus home. Instead they fell into the hands of a gang of men who reportedly told police they were “looking for fun” and beat the young man before raping and disemboweling the young woman with metal rods. . She died of her injuries in a Singapore hospital two weeks later; her battered friend is recovering.
The youngest of the accused has been described in media reports here, quoting unnamed police officers, as the most brutal of the attackers and the one who egged the others on; the fact that, if convicted, he could serve a maximum of three years in a juvenile reform facility has generated furious discussion.
The chaos at the courthouse came amid other rapid developments in this story. On Sunday, a British tabloid published an interview with the father of the rape victim, in which she was identified by name, apparently with her father’s consent. Until that point, she had not been publicly named, as the identity of rape victims is kept private under Indian law. .
Releasing the young woman’s identity has also been the subject of fierce debate here, with many people, including a cabinet minister, arguing that it would allow fitting “tributes” to the victim, such as naming a proposed new law on sexual assault after her (other naming proposals include hospitals, schools and a highway overpass).
Others have suggested that there is no need to make her identity public, arguing that naming her opens her memory and her family up to the direct criticisms of those, including several prominent political and spiritual leaders, who say the victim was behaving in an “improper” and Western fashion and so is to blame for the attack. Feminist commentator Nilanjana Roy wrote: “Don’t tell me her name; I don’t need to know it to cry for her.”