Were the Delhi Rape Suspects Tortured by Police?

Five suspects finally appear in court with legal representation, but how their case will be conducted amid both legal and popular chaos remains to be seen.

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Indian police personnel guide a vehicle, which is believed to be carrying the accused in a gangrape and murder case, at an entrance to Saket District Court in New Delhi, Jan. 7, 2013.

Five suspects in the now infamous Delhi gang-rape case appeared for a second day in court on Thursday. The men came with legal representation for the first time since their arrest last month, after a local bar association and other lawyers in the Indian capital refused to represent them in court. The proceedings were held behind closed doors; after the case’s initial hearing on Monday got off to a chaotic start, the judge ordered that the proceedings and upcoming trial would be held in camera only, a decision that was upheld yesterday.

The lawyer of one of the men told several media outlets outside the court today that the five suspects were beaten and tortured while in police custody, a claim that, while hardly unheard of in India, is bound to feature largely in this high-profile case. The Delhi police have not commented on the allegation. The lawyer, Manohar Lal Sharma, was reportedly one of the first to come forward earlier this week to publicly offer to defend the accused. Since then, other lawyers have been assigned to defend three of the men. It is unclear whether the fifth suspect has been assigned a lawyer or not.

(PHOTOS: In India, a Rape Sparks Violent Protests and Demands for Justice)

Sharma also said that his client, the brother of the driver of the bus aboard which a 23-year-old student was allegedly raped and beaten on Dec. 16, will plead not guilty in the upcoming trial. Some of the other suspects are expected to do the same. The sixth individual arrested in connection with the case, if he is found to be below the age of 18 as he claims to be, is expected to be charged and tried in a juvenile court.

India has been in an uproar since the morning of Dec. 17, when the country woke up to the news of the chilling crime committed in the capital’s busy streets. A physiotherapy student was on her way home from a movie when she and her male friend took a ride on what they thought was a privately run commuter bus. They were both beaten severely, and the girl was raped. Both were thrown out of the bus naked and left for dead on the side of the road. Two weeks later, after multiple surgeries and treatment in a Singapore hospital, the woman died from her injuries, sending the nation into mourning.

The case has raised serious questions about attitudes toward women in India and the efficacy of law enforcement in the capital in particular, where many believe that police and the court system often fail them. As weeks of protests unfolded in New Delhi and other parts of the country, authorities have taken several measures both to ensure greater security in the capital region and to expedite legal proceedings in sexual-assault cases, which often move slowly through the system, if at all.

(MORE: India’s Gang-Rape Case: As Accused Go to Court, Unease Settles over Delhi)

But the notion of “fast track” courts for this and other sexual-assault cases has raised concerns. The suspects in the Dec. 16 attack have been charged with rape and murder, among other crimes, and prosecutors have indicated that they will seek the death penalty in the upcoming trial. It is not yet certain whether this case will be fast-tracked or not, but observers are already worried that the lack of early legal representation for the suspects that appeared today in court may be grounds for appeal later if any of the men are convicted.

In the three weeks since the assault, India’s dailies have featured a steady flow of reports of disturbing sexual assaults on women. A month ago, these stories — and the larger issue of sexual assault in India — played out in the background of bigger news events. “There are rape cases in almost all cities and rural areas, where the victim dies immediately because of the brutality of the crime,” says Anne Stenhammer, the regional program director for U.N. Women South Asia. “This time, it was like, ‘Wake up.'”

With the problem back in the spotlight, the papers are also filled with reports of a seemingly endless series of gaffes from political and social leaders as they attempt to opine on the matter. In one of the latest, a parliamentarian for the opposition BJP party told reporters on Thursday that “the rape of grownup girls and women might be understandable but if someone does this to an infant, it is a heinous crime and the offenders should be hanged.” Theories on what makes women vulnerable to assault, ranging from India’s westernization to short skirts to a victim’s spiritual piety, have all have been making the rounds, a testament to how out of touch some of India’s leaders are when it comes to the status of women.
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