Three of the men accused of raping and murdering an Indian student have asked lawyers to defend them and the lawyers have agreed to do so, even though most of the judiciary has refused to represent the suspects because of outrage over the attack.
The 23-year-old physiotherapy student died two weeks after being beaten and gang-raped on a moving bus in New Delhi, then thrown bleeding onto the street. Protests followed, along with a fierce public debate over police failure to stem rampant violence against women.
Five men and a teenager have been accused of the Dec. 16 attack but with public anger simmering, most lawyers in the district where the trial will be held have ruled out representing them.
But two lawyers, V. K. Anand and Manohar Lal Sharma, offered to defend the five men when they appeared in a New Delhi court for the first time on Monday, despite the condemnation of their legal colleagues.
The lawyers said on Tuesday three of the five had asked to be represented by them. "I understand the sentiments of the people. But you cannot go by sentiments," Anand told Reuters. "The accused have a right to justice just as the victim has."
Legal experts had said a lack of representation for the five could give grounds for appeal if they were found guilty. Convictions in similar cases have often been overturned years later.
The five accused men are facing various charges including murder, rape and abduction and prosecutors have said they would seek the death penalty. Anand said he would represent Ram Singh, the driver of the bus on which the rape took place, and had a preliminary meeting with him on Tuesday to work on a defence plan.
"There are many aspects. He has conceded some things and also talked about the role of others," Anand said. He declined to go into details. The other lawyer, Sharma, said he would also be representing Singh as well as two other men.
The court must confirm the two lawyers as defenders when it next convenes on Jan. 10. The other two of the five accused men had yet to ask for legal representation, the lawyers said. The sixth member of the group, who is a teenager, will be tried separately in a juvenile court.
On Monday, Anand and Sharma were heckled when they offered to defend the men during rowdy scenes in court before the pre-trial hearing. Sharma said denying the men a legal defence would only make it easier for courts to throw out the case if not now, then later, if it went to an appeal.
Since their arrest soon after the assault on the woman and a male companion, the men have not had any lawyers. Police have conducted extensive interrogations of the men and say they have recorded confessions.
"This is a critical, complicated case. All the more reason it should be tried in a fair manner," said Sharma, who practises at the Supreme Court.
The case has shone a light on a widespread problem of violence against women but also the failure of the criminal justice system to bring the guilty to justice in a country where official statistics show a rape is reported every 20 minutes.
The case will be heard in a special fast-track process, set up after the attack, but some legal experts have warned that previous attempts to fast-track justice in India in some cases led to imperfect convictions that were later challenged.
Anand said comments by the woman's male companion, who was badly beaten, about how they were left unattended afterwards and how the police wrangled over whose jurisdiction the crime had been committed in had exposed lapses in the investigation.
"This is not an open and shut case," Anand said. He did not go into specifics. The woman's friend told Zee television that passers-by left the pair lying unclothed and bleeding in the street while police officers argued over where to take them after they arrived 45 minutes later. Police said the first police van reached the scene four minutes after it was called and took the man and the woman to hospital within 24 minutes.
The woman lived for two weeks after the attack but died in a Singapore hospital where she had been taken for treatment.