Tight security is in place for the start of an emotionally-charged rape trial in the Indian capital, New Delhi. The alleged perpetrators are accused of rape, murder, kidnapping and robbery.
The indictment against the group of men charged with allegedly raping the 23-year-old student on the night of December 16 is said to be 1,000 pages thick, describing the incident in minute detail based on the testimony of the victim and her boyfriend on their way home from a movie.
The indictment describes how the young couple had been coaxed into a privately-operated bus by the defendants, how the bus suddenly took an alternate route to the one agreed on and how the young woman was then allegedly accosted and raped by the group of drunken men. Her boyfriend is said to have tried to protect her, but was beaten by the men with an iron bar before they took turns gang-raping the woman. The alleged victim is also said to have been tortured with the rusty metal bar.
After about an hour, the young couple was robbed and thrown half-naked and bleeding off the moving bus. The acused then allegedly attempted to run over them. In three emergency operations the young woman had to have her entire intestines removed. She suffered severe brain damage and died last Saturday as a result of multiple organ failure at the special hospital where she was being treated in Singapore. The doctors are among the witnesses who have been called to testify. The case triggered violent, nationwide protests across India.
The trial is expected to last 100 days, the Indian government hastily promised in a move to placate public anger. A special court was even set up for the purpose to hear the case up to seven days a week, if necessary. But even so, this is a very ambitious goal in a country like India, where the wheels of justice are often painfully slow, observers say. The president of India's Supreme Court, Altamas Kabir, warned however that: "we must be sure not to be swayed by emotion. There must be no quick trial at the expense of a fair trial," he said. According to estimates, Indian courts have a backlog of some 40,000 rape cases alone.
Who are the perpetrators?
Six men were arrested after the crime and identified by the boyfriend of the victim. One of the six is supposedly only 17 years old and was turned over to a juvenile court where he will stand trial. A bone analysis has been ordered to determine his exact age. Forensic specialists found bodily fluids and skin particles on the victim which have been subjected to DNA testing.
According to the police, the alleged ringleader of the gang-rapists is 35-year-old Ram S. from Rajasthan. The widower lived in Ravi Dass Camp, a slum in South Delhi and has allegedly been described by his neighbors as an alcoholic prone to violent outbursts. His 26-year-old brother, Mukesh, is also said to be involved in the incident. Other defendents include a 19-year-old vegetable vendor,a 20-year-old fitness coach,and a 28-year-old part-time bus driver from Bihar, one of the poorest states of India. He is alleged to have tried to clean the bus and its seats after the rape incident and to have burned the victim's clothing.
Death penalty debate
According to Indian law, there is a maximum lifetime prison sentence. In instances of death, capital punishment can also be imposed. But the death penalty is only carried out seldomly. In November 2012, the only surviving terrorist involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, was hanged. The last time the death penalty had been implemented prior to that was in 2004, when 39-year-old Dhananjoy Chatterjee, who had raped and killed a 14-year-old girl, was killed. But since December 16, calls for capital punishment for rapist have become much louder and much more widespread.
Activist Prashant Bhushan, who has been a lawyer at the Supreme Court since 1983, sees the demands critically. "If you look at this case, it could be judged by the law as an especially grave case. The death penalty could be handed down in this case. But I am fundamentally against the death penalty." Bhushan said using capital punishment as a deterrent made no sense. "I believe the use of the death penalty promotes the culture of violence in a society. The execution - the killing - of a person is a form of violence carried out by the state."
Calls for change
Rights activists and media outlets in India demand fundamental change. For them, the 23-year-old woman, whose name has not been revealed, has become a heroine a symbol of the fight for women's rights in India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has commissioned investigating committees - one to look into the rape of the student, and another one to investigate the general situation of women and propose measures to end the discrimination of them. Prashant Bhushan, however, fears that the government's promises will be soon forgotten.
"80 percent of the people here do not profit from the growing economy. Societal inequality is growing and corruption right along with it."
He pointed out the diminishing trust the people have in politics and in the police. "A judge once said that the police in India were the largest body of organized crime in the country."
What counts is gaining back the trust among the people for the police as well as the justice system. A court is due to examine the charges against the accused on Saturday.