NEW: Panel proposes changes in sexual assault policies in India
Five men accused of raping and killing a woman in December face trial in New Delhi
Defense lawyers say shifting the case outside Delhi would ensure a fair hearing
The 23-year-old victim in that case, which transfixed India, died from her injuries
The lawyer for one of the men accused in the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman wants the trial moved out of New Delhi, where emotions have run high over the case.
The defense lawyer will argue before the Indian Supreme Court on Wednesday that transferring legal proceedings outside the Indian capital would ensure a free and fair hearing. His appearance, which was originally scheduled for Tuesday, was pushed back a day.
Meanwhile, a panel appointed by India’s home affairs minister after the incident delivered a 600-page report Wednesday criticizing authorities and even everyday Indians for their apathy and “low and skewed priority of dealing with complaints of sexual assault.”
The group said social failings, not adequate criminal laws, are to blame for the lackadaisical treatment of sexual assault in India.
“Failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment eroding the rule of law, and not the want of needed legislation,” the panel said in its report.
However, the group did make several policy recommendations, including creating a new offense of gang rape punishable by at least 20 years in prison, making it a crime for police to fail to investigate sexual assault complaints and making it illegal to consider character or previous sexual experience of the victim at a criminal trial.
Kirti Singh of the National Commission for Women called the report a “landmark document.”
The case has gripped India, prompting protests in the capital and other cites over the treatment of women and criticism of the way sexual assault cases are dealt with.
The consequences of the case are still unfolding in the Indian news media, with calls for tougher punishment of people convicted of rape.
The five adult suspects in the December 16 incident appeared at a closed-door hearing at a fast-track court in New Delhi on Monday. Details about what was said in court cannot be reported under a judge’s ruling imposing restrictions on coverage of the case.
Police allege the suspects attacked the woman and her male companion on a bus, robbed them and dumped them by the side of the road.
The woman, badly injured in the attack, died two weeks later despite being flown to Singapore for treatment. Her companion survived.
The five men are charged with murder, rape and kidnapping and could face the death penalty if convicted. A sixth suspect, who is believed to be too young to be tried as an adult, is facing proceedings in a juvenile court.
The case is being heard in a “fast-track” court, which India introduced to try to expedite cases in a justice system bogged down by red tape. It means sessions of the trial, once it begins, should take place nearly every working day until a verdict is reached.
The hearing Monday was a procedural step at which the charge sheet detailing prosecutors’ accusations against the suspects was submitted. The trial will begin once the prosecution’s arguments are made in court.
The next hearing is scheduled for Thursday, according to defense lawyers.
The magistrates’ court that initially heard the case imposed restrictions on what the news media can report about events in court.
That practice is common in rape cases in India to protect the victim’s identity, and the magistrate said it was also necessary out of concern for the suspects’ safety amid intense media coverage and widespread anger.
Authorities have not released the name of the dead woman, but Indian protesters have been calling her Damini, which means “lightning” in Hindi.
“Damini” is also a 1993 Bollywood film whose lead female character fights for a housemaid, a victim of sexual assault.
The events have also focused the attention of the Indian news media on attacks against women around the huge country. Newspapers and television stations have been reporting other shocking rape allegations on an almost daily basis.
In one of the most recent examples, police in the eastern state of Odisha arrested six men over accusations they gang raped a 25-year-old woman on Sunday as she was on her way home from visiting her brother in a hospital.
The six men, including two who worked as custodians at the hospital, are alleged to have taken the woman to an isolated area by a river and sexually assaulted her, said B.K. Aich, a police superintendent in the district of Mayurbhanj.
Police are waiting for medical reports on the suspects to determine whether to take the case to court, Aich said.
The number of reported rapes in India – a country where a cultural stigma keeps many victims from reporting the crime – has increased from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011, according to official figures.
Most women in India have stories of sexual harassment and abuse on public transportation or on the streets, the Indian Council on Global Relations says.
Journalist Neiha Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.