The five men accused in the rape case that has reverberated around the world were brought before a New Delhi magistrate for the first time today — but only after she sealed the proceedings.
A chaotic scene broke out just prior to the hearing, with lawyers hurling insults at other attorneys who were offering to represent the accused. "How can you defend such animals?" they angrily shouted. Bar associations throughout Delhi have passed resolutions refusing to represent the five men who stand accused of brutally gang-raping a 23-year-old woman last month in a case that has provoked a nation-wide outcry.
Her subsequent death from the injuries she suffered in the attack resulted in murder charges being filed against all five accused men. A sixth defendant is being treated as juvenile in a separate hearing.
Today, scores of reporters, curious members of the legal community and the public pressed into the small court "occupying every inch of space" that had become "jam packed with lots of disturbances created from different nooks and crannies," said Magistrate Namrita Aggarwa, who added that "for want of safe passage," the accused were not then present in court.
The courtroom was ultimately vacated and the proceedings held in camera. The magistrate said public prosecutors had "apprehensions about the safety" of the defendants. After declaring that it "had become impossible for the proceedings" to be held in open court, she invoked Indian Criminal Procedure section 327, which removes all but the parties to the case from the chamber. The magistrate went one step further and ruled that "it shall be unlawful for any person to print or publish any matter in relation to any such proceeding," except with the permission of the court.
The accused, wearing woolen hats and hooded sweatshirts, were then paraded into the court under heavy police guard. On Sunday, two of the defendants told the court they wanted to become witnesses for the prosecution. Police have scoffed at the idea, saying there is enough evidence to convict them all independent of any exculpating testimony.
After the defendants' appearance today, the magistrate told reporters that they had had been presented with copies of the charge sheet, which includes gang rape, conspiracy, and murder, the latter carrying the death penalty.
The accused are reported to be "terrified" at the speed of the case and ferociousness of overwhelming public demands that they be found guilty and hanged. The crime has convulsed India with calls for an overhaul of the police, the criminal justice system, and laws regarding sexual violence in India.
Apart from the crime of rape, India's British colonial era criminal code speaks anachronistically of "outraging the modesty"of a woman. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that "the act of pulling a woman, removing her saree, coupled with a request for sexual intercourse ... would be an outrage to the modesty of a woman; and knowledge, that modesty is likely to be outraged, is sufficient to constitute the offence." In other words, outraging a woman's modesty would apply to crimes against women that stop short of sexual penetration. India has yet to codify any anti-stalking law, nor is there any provision to address incidents of acid attacks, a common form of violence against women in South Asia.
The accused are due back in court on Thursday to discuss whether they have retained legal counsel of their own, or whether the court will appoint lawyers for their defense.