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.
All five men have pleaded not guilty to all charges. Court officials said the case against the other men would proceed and would be unaffected since Mr. Singh was not a witness. Details of the trial are under publication ban. The latest hearing in the case, slated for Monday afternoon, did not proceed due to an unrelated lawyers' strike.
"There is already an inquiry which has been ordered by Tihar Jail on suicide of the main accused," R. P. N. Singh, deputy minister of home affairs, told reporters. "We are inquiring into the matter."
Ram Singh was from a village in the northwestern state of Rajasthan; he migrated to Delhi as a child with his parents, and worked alongside them doing construction for a few dollars a day. He lived in a shantytown not far from where the victim was picked up on the bus. Mr. Singh had a complicated personal life; he is reported to have eloped with a neighbour – who was a married mother of three children – but she is said to have died a few years ago. He was now said to be raising a five-year-old son although that child may, in fact, have been his brother's. Neighbours have described him as having a violent and volatile personality.
Mr. Singh's apparent suicide was greeted by the Delhi public with a resounding air of "good riddance." While a few judicial-reform advocates tried to raise the issue of presumption of innocence, many people seemed to believe that Mr. Singh had simply saved the Indian state the work of carrying out his inevitable execution. "He got what was coming," said Aarti Gupta, a homemaker in a middle-class neighbourhood, who was glued to the television news. "Why should he have been alive even one more day?"
IN PRISON, SUICIDE OR MURDER DEEMED EQUALLY PLAUSIBLE
Suicide or murder: They are equally plausible explanations for the death in prison of Ram Singh, according to Kiran Bedi, the retired head of India's prisons.
"Prison is a community and prison accepts some crimes and not others," she said. Police officers who end up in jail are at risk of attack by other inmates and so are "those who commit crimes of the Ram Singh kind, who committed a brutal attack on a young woman and the whole world knew about it." His offence was well-known in the prison, she said, and it made him a target for violence from other inmates.
But because of the "overwhelming evidence" that was being presented to the fast-track court in his trial, he likely felt "hopelessness" and might have required regular psychiatric support, she added. "Whether that was happening needs to be part of the inquiry. His lawyer said he was happy – so was this just a mood swing?"
Ms. Bedi said that if prison officials had assessed Mr. Singh as not requiring a suicide watch, then it made sense he wasn't supervised. She rejected the idea that it might have behooved prison officials to be especially watchful of Mr. Singh's mental state and security, given that the perceived police failures that allowed the bus rape to occur in the first place have led to widespread scorn for Indian law enforcement.
"That's like being wiser after the fact," she said. "He was not all alone, he was not in isolation. You've got 12,000 people in there, and if you start asking should we watch this or watch that – you'd never stop."
Ms. Bedi joined the Indian Police Service in 1972, its first female officer. Most recently, she had been an outspoken activist against corruption and for governance reform.
But her most lasting impact may be the sweeping reforms she made at Tihar – said to be Asia's largest jail – when she was director general of prisons in the mid-1990s. She introduced yoga classes, computer labs, libraries and a music program; she championed the idea that prisoners could be reformed. She set up vocational training that grew into a factory; today, Tihar prisoners produce everything from cookies to cushions to picture frames under the TJ's (Tihar Jail) brand.
She said that Mr. Singh's fate could have been utterly different if he had admitted guilt and pursued redemption, rather than the not-guilty plea put forth, she speculated, at the urging of his lawyers. "If he had made an early plea for mercy, he would get a second chance inside the prison. … He could continue to meet his family, he could live without guilt and serve the community. When we have an open-and-shut case, I wish we had a [legal] fraternity that allowed you to ask for mercy, and live, and enter reform programs. He could have evolved into a human being there."