For the first time after being accused of gang-raping and murdering a 23-year-old student in Delhi, the five men arrested for the crime that pierced India's conscience appeared in court today. However, they had to wait for several hours in a police cell at the court complex because the court-room was so packed that there was no space for them; the prosecution has also warned that their security is a matter of concern.
Magistrate Namrita Aggarwal responded by declaring that the media will not be allowed to attend or report the pre-trial proceedings. Her announcement came after hours of drama over a lawyer who volunteered to represent the accused and was dismissed angrily as a publicity seeker by other advocates. The Saket Bar Association had said none of its members would defend the five men.
In the early evening, the five men were informed of the full list of charges against them and the next hearing was fixed for Thursday. Before the case is transferred as planned, to a fast-track court, a decision will have to be taken on who will represent them. If convicted they could face the death penalty.
At about 2 pm, the court-room which can seat 30 was packed with more than 150 people, many of them lawyers and reporters.
"It has become impossible for this court to conduct proceedings in this case," magistrate Namrita Aggarwal said, ordering anyone not directly connected to the case to exit.
The prosecution has asked that the identity of the victim be protected, and has alerted the judge that there are concerns over the safety of the men. A man was arrested last week as he allegedly tried to plant a crude bomb near the home of one of the men.
ML Sharma, who volunteered to represent the accused, said their families had approached him for help. The judge said he would have to visit the men in Tihar Jail to seek their consent, and rejected his request to meet with them today at the court complex.
The police has said it has forensic evidence to establish the guilt of the defendants. A sixth man who was on the bus, who is 17, is to be tried in a separate court for juveniles. The police says he was the most depraved of the group.
On December 16, the student and her boyfriend watched a movie at a South Delhi mall. They then boarded a school bus that was running illegally at night. The driver, according to the police, had decided to go for "a joyride" with his friends. The couple were led to believe the school bus was a private or chartered bus, hundreds of which operate in Delhi to compensate for thin public transport.
Once they boarded the bus, the six men allegedly hit them with an iron rod before taking turns to rape the young woman. The pair were then thrown out of the moving vehicle.
(with inputs from Agencies)