NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The driver of the bus in which a young Indian woman was gang-raped and fatally injured in December hanged himself in New Delhi's Tihar jail on Monday, officials said, a dramatic twist in a case that has provoked outrage across India.
Ram Singh's lawyer said his client had been composed and calm when he spoke to him on Friday and that there were other inmates in his cell, raising questions about whether it was a suicide and how it could have gone unnoticed by staff in India's highest security prison.
The lawyer and a prison official said Singh had not been on suicide watch.
Police have described Singh as the ringleader of five men and a juvenile on trial for the December 16 attack on the 23-year-old trainee physiotherapist in the Indian capital. The assault triggered nationwide protests, a toughening of rape laws and an intense debate about rampant crime against women in India.
All six accused have pleaded not guilty to rape and murder.
Tihar prison authorities ordered a magisterial inquiry after Singh was found hanging in his cell at around 5 a.m., prison spokesman Sunil Gupta said.
Singh's lawyer, V.K. Anand, told Reuters that his client did not appear to be distressed when he spoke to him on Friday.
"I believe he was satisfied with the way the trial was proceeding because we had a very strong case against the prosecution's claims," he said.
"This is not suicide, this is something else. I know he had a few complaints of jail authorities torturing him, but nothing that would make him take his own life. We can't rule out foul play. Nothing is adding up," he said.
Anand has previously always denied that his client was being maltreated in prison. He did not elaborate on the "torture".
Singh had been kept in a cell with other inmates, he said.
A former director of the jail, Kiran Bedi, said Singh should have been kept isolated from the main prison population.
"High security prisoners cannot be part of the community, they must be separate because the other prisoners will not accept them," she said on CNN-IBN television news channel.
Singh's mother cried uncontrollably and punched herself in the chest as her husband helped her into an auto rickshaw in the Delhi slum where they live. "He left me," she said repeatedly. The parents were headed to a hospital to see their son's body.
"Its a conspiracy. We don't believe he would commit suicide," said a relative who did not want to give his name.
TRIAL OF OTHERS CONTINUES
The trial of the five adult men started last month while the juvenile's trial began last week. Ram Singh's brother Mukesh Singh, gym assistant Vinay Sharma, bus cleaner Akshay Kumar Singh and fruit vendor Pawan Kumar are the other men on trial.
Under Indian law, the juvenile cannot be named.
The attack generated headlines around the world, but the case has since largely disappeared from public view, in large part because authorities have barred reporting on the trial, which was due to resume in a fast-track court on Monday.
Police allege the six attacked the woman and a male companion on the bus as the couple returned home after watching a movie on December 16. The woman was repeatedly raped and tortured with a metal bar. The couple were also severely beaten before being thrown onto a road.
The woman died of internal injuries in a Singapore hospital two weeks later.
The police report used to charge the accused draws a picture of Ram Singh as the ringleader. On the night of December 16, the accused gathered at his house for dinner, where he came up with the plan of taking the bus out to look for a victim to rape, the report said.
The police say they found him sitting in the blood-stained school bus, wearing a bloodied tee-shirt, the morning after the crime. A DNA test revealed that the blood belonged to the rape victim, the report said.
Singh was a bus driver despite an accident in 2009 that fractured his right arm so badly that doctors had to insert a rod to support it. He appeared on a reality television show in a compensation dispute with a bus owner, who in turn accused Singh of "drunken, negligent and rash driving".
In the show, the mustachioed, slightly-built man was seen walking stiffly and holding his right arm at an awkward angle.
Singh's neighbors in the south Delhi slum where he lived described him as a heavy drinker with a temper. One young woman said he used to get embroiled in violent rows and a relative recalled a physical altercation with her husband.
The physiotherapist's brother said he was "not very thrilled with the news that he killed himself because I wanted him to be hanged ... publicly."
"Him dying on his own terms seems unfair. But, oh well, one is down. Hopefully the rest will wait for their death sentence."
(Reporting by John Chalmers, Satarupa Bhattacharjya, Matthias Williams, Frank Jack Daniel, Diksha Madhok, writing by Ross Colvin; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)
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