NEW DELHI — The trial of the group of men accused of gang-raping a young student three months ago in New Delhi is arguably the most keenly watched court case in India today, and it has emerged as a test case for the Indian justice system — and media coverage of it.
At first, the court had barred journalists from covering the trial, which began Jan. 21, ruling that public emotions attached to the incident were raw and daily reporting could influence the proceedings. But the court lifted the gag order Friday, ruling in favor of a petition arguing for transparency.
On Monday, the defendants’ attorneys took advantage of the audience to enact a full-blown courtroom drama in a bid to show that the legal process was not unfolding fairly.
“Because of the daily hearings, I do not get sufficient time to brief my clients about the proceedings,” one of the lawyers, Manohar Lal Sharma, told the court. “I get to meet them in jail only once a week. . . . The accused do not even realize they are facing the death penalty. They think this is all a game of lawyers.”
To prove his point, Sharma walked to one of the four suspects and asked him whether he understood what was going on. The public prosecutor then accused Sharma of trying to push back the trial, which the government put on a fast track in response to enormous public pressure.
“All this excitement is being shown with the purpose to ensure delay,” said the public prosecutor, Dayan Krishnan. Referring to the reporters in the courtroom, Krishnan turned to Sharma and said, “Don’t play to the gallery.”
For rape victims in India, the struggle for justice begins with getting the police to file a complaint. Once they do, victims often face enormous social pressure to withdraw it. Police investigations can be insensitive and humiliating, and cases can drag on for more than a decade in the country’s overburdened courts.
By quickly prosecuting the case, the government and the judiciary want to send a signal that they will not let rape trials languish for years. But providing a fair trial for the accused in the rape remains a challenge because the court of public opinion has raced ahead of India’s typically slow court procedures.
And though the opening of the hearings highlighted the unusual speed with which the high-profile case is being handled, it also put on display the somewhat chaotic nature of the proceedings.
The courtroom outbursts Monday were the latest public developments in a case that has seen many twists and turns since police charged five men in the rape of the 23-year-old paramedical student, who died from her injuries. A sixth accused, a minor, is being tried separately. But his alleged brutality in the gang rape has led many Indians to demand that the age at which juvenile suspects are charged as adults be lowered to 16 from 18.
Just ahead of the trial, lawyers in the district court that is hearing the case refused to defend the five suspects. When a lawyer from another court offered his services, he was shouted at and pushed by colleagues.
Indian media reported that the suspects were beaten by other inmates in prison. This month, authorities said the main suspect in the case, Ram Singh, hanged himself in prison, but defense lawyers suggested that he might have been killed.
On Monday, Singh’s younger brother, Mukesh Singh, who is also a defendant, complained of chest pain and was taken to the hospital. His attorney, Sharma, immediately vented to the judge.
“I am very much worried something is fishy. I have already lost one client,” the lawyer said. He submitted an application for a thorough medical examination of Singh and another client.
The court Monday also refused the bail application by Vinay Sharma, a 19-year-old accused in the case, to appear for a job interview with the Indian air force. The court said the defendant might flee.
“At least three members of Parliament accused of large-scale corruption were granted bail last year. They are now sitting inside Parliament, voting on legislations, participating in discussions,” defense lawyer A.P. Singh told reporters. “Then why can’t Vinay Sharma get bail to pursue his career ambition?”
Singh added: “It is a very good thing that the media will now cover the trial; all the loopholes will now be revealed.”