A day before a case of gang rape and murder that has attracted worldwide attention was scheduled to be handed over to a new fast-track court for trial, two lawyers said Wednesday that they had been retained by some of the suspects and planned to offer not guilty pleas for their clients.
Despite a charged atmosphere that led thousands of lawyers in the local bar association to claim this week that the accused did not deserve representation because of the heinous nature of the crime, it appeared that the defendants were beginning to put together a defense team.
One lawyer, Manohar Lal Sharma, who practices in India's Supreme Court, said Wednesday that three of the five adult suspects had signed papers authorizing him to represent them. The three are Ram Singh, Mukesh Kumar and Akshay Thakur.
Sharma said he was waiting to read the police charge sheet before formulating a defense strategy. He said he intended to scrutinize the thoroughness of the police investigation in the case, saying it was "not done properly."
But there was still some confusion over who would be representing the suspects. Another lawyer, V.K. Anand, said he was representing Ram Singh, the driver of the small bus where the 23-year-old victim was raped and assaulted for 45 minutes on Dec. 16 before being stripped and thrown out on a highway.
Anand said he had spoken with Singh for an hour and a half on Tuesday in Tihar Jail, where the accused are being held, and was convinced of his innocence.
"He should definitely be represented," Anand said. "The reason is, whatever is coming in the media, whatever stories are coming from other corners and sources are absolutely different."
Both lawyers said they would hand in their appointment letters, known as "vakalatnamas," to a magistrate on Thursday.
On Monday, shortly before the five adult suspects appeared in a south Delhi court, Sharma and Anand informed the court about their offers to represent the accused during a chaotic courtroom scene where other lawyers tried to shout them down.
The disarray prompted the magistrate to order journalists, lawyers and others not connected to the case to leave the courtroom. A sixth defendant is expected to be tried as a juvenile.
The magistrate, Namrita Aggarwal, issued an order declaring that the inquiry and trial would be "in camera," permitting only those directly involved to enter the court. On the request of the special public prosecutor, Rajeev Mohan, the magistrate also prohibited journalists from printing or publishing any information about the proceedings.
Aggarwal ruled that the crowds pressing inside the courtroom made it "completely impossible" to function. She also said that the police feared for the safety of the accused.
The case is expected to be transferred Thursday to a trial judge in a so-called fast-track court, but the proceedings will continue to take place in private. On Wednesday, a district judge rejected a challenge to the order barring journalists and others not connected to the case from the proceedings, saying that the order complied with India's criminal procedure code.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service