Trial of five men accused of Delhi bus attack to open on Monday

The trial of the five men accused of the gang-rape and murder of a young woman will open on Monday in a special fast-track court in Delhi, an Indian magistrate has ordered.

The brutal attack on the 23-year-old physiotherapy student last month led to widespread protests across the country as well as an unprecedented debate about cultural attitudes to women in India.

In the aftermath of the attack, the government, widely criticised for its slow response and for turning riot police on protestors demanding better protection for women, has introduced a number of measures including five fast-track courts in the capital to deal swiftly with crimes against women. Other projects of police and legal reform are still under consideration.

The courts are aimed at avoiding the delays, incompetence and corruption that plague much of India's legal system and are particularly common in cases of sexual abuse. Though it was never likely that graft would undermine such a high-profile trial, other cases involving similar offenses have collapsed when witnesses have been intimidated.

Namrita Aggarwal, the magistrate at the south Delhi court where pre-trial hearings have been heard, completed the formalities for sending the case to a fast-track court on Thursday afternoon. Five men will appear in the court in Monday. Aged between 18 and 35, they include a bus driver, a part-time gym instructor, a cleaner and a fruitseller.

A sixth suspect in the attack claims to be a juvenile. Reported to be 17, his case is being handled separately. There have been loud public calls for him to face the death penalty with the other accused.

Lawyers for the five adults detained two days after the attack have claimed that police "tortured" them, including beating them to force them to confess to the crime, which occurred on 16 December. Such abuse is endemic in India and legal experts described the claims were "credible".The police say the men are linked by DNA evidence to the crime.

VK Anand, a lawyer for one defendants, said on Thursday he would try to get the rape trial moved from Delhi since he did not believe his client would get a fair hearing in the capital. The case has revealed deep cultural tensions within India, setting conservatives who often blame Western influences for such incidents against campaigners for greater rights for women.

Police say the victim and a male friend, going home from an evening movie, had boarded a bus going in south-west Delhi at around 9pm.

Witness statements seen by the Guardian indicate that the men set up a trap for unsuspecting "customers" with several posing as passengers to entice possible targets for robbery or worse.

The attackers beat the man and took turns raping the woman and penetrated her repeatedly with a metal bar, causing massive internal injuries, police said. During the attack the bus was driven through a series of police checkpoints without incident, police said.

The victims were eventually dumped on the roadside, and the woman died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.

The attack focused attention on the little discussed issue of sexual violence in a country where women are still often regarded as second-class citizens. Victims are often blamed for sexual attacks, by their families or authorities, and the shame of rape keeps many women from reporting attacks.

Since the gang rape, though, sexual violence has become front-page news nearly every day across India, with demands that the government do more to protect women and prosecute those that attack them.

The Times of India reported the case of an 11-year-old abducted from a bus stop in the north-western state of Rajasthan and repeatedly raped by six men. After repeated operations she is still "fighting for her life" in hospital, the newspaper said.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

[Photo via AFP]