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India gang-rape case: Accused duo offer to testify against others

NEW DELHI — Five men accused of the gang rape and murder of an Indian student appeared in court on Monday to hear charges against them, after two of them offered evidence possibly in return for a lighter sentence in the case, which is at the center of a global outcry.

The five men, along with a teenager, are accused of raping the 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a moving bus in New Delhi. She died two weeks later on December 28 in a Singapore hospital.

Two of the accused, Vinay Sharma and Pawan Gupta, moved an application on Saturday requesting they be made "approvers," or informers against the other accused, a public prosecutor in the case, Rajiv Mohan, told Reuters.

"The five accused persons deserve not less than the death penalty," he said. His views echoing public sentiment and calls from the victim's family.

A police van carrying five men accused of the gang rape and murder of an Indian student arrives at a court in New Delhi,Monday.
A police van carrying five men accused of the gang rape and murder of an Indian student arrives at a court in New Delhi,Monday.Reuters

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Members of the bar association in Saket district, where the case is being heard, have vowed not to represent them. Ahead of Monday's court appearance, the five were still believed to be without defense lawyers despite extensive interrogations by the police, who have said they have recorded confessions.

Supreme Court lawyer Manohar Lal Sharma stood up to offer representation to the men and was booed by other lawyers in the packed courtroom, where media and advocates gathered before the men were due to appear.

Their lack of representation so far could give grounds for appeal later should they be found guilty. Similar cases have resulted in acquittals years after convictions.

"The accused has a right to a lawyer from point of arrest - the investigations are going on, statements being taken, it is totally illegal," said Colin Gonsalves, a senior Supreme Court advocate and director of Delhi's Human Rights Law Network.

Chemical castration?

A government panel is considering suggestions to make the death penalty mandatory for rape and introducing forms of chemical castration for the guilty. It is due to make its recommendations by Jan. 23.

Senior leaders of most Indian states on Friday came out in support of a plan to lower to 16 the age that minors can be tried as adults - in response to fury that the maximum penalty the accused youth could face is three years detention.

Courts are swamped with a backlog of cases in the country of 1.2 billion people and trials often take more than five years to complete, so the launch by Chief Justice Altamas Kabir of six fast-track courts in the capital to deal with sexual offences was widely greeted as a welcome move.

The case has taken sexual violence — a subject long hidden in the shadows of Indian society — and thrust it into the light.

For decades, women have had little choice but to walk away when groped in a crowded bus or train, or to simply cringe as someone tosses an obscene comment their way. Even if they haven't experienced explicit sexual abuse themselves, they live with the fear that it could happen to them or a loved one.

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Following the Dec. 16 attack, hundreds of thousands of Indians — both men and women — poured onto the streets of cities across the country, holding candlelight vigils and rallies demanding that authorities take tougher action to create a safe environment for women.

The harassment and violence faced daily by millions of Indian women is a deeply entrenched part of a culture that values men over women.

The mistreatment starts early — with sex-selective abortions and even female infanticides that have wildly skewed India's gender ratio. India's 2011 census showed that the country had 914 girls under age 6 for every 1,000 boys.

Indian movies and television shows routinely trivialize women. In the often suggestive songs and dances of Bollywood films, it's not unusual for the leading man and a gang of his buddies to chase a coyly reluctant actress, touching, pulling and throwing themselves on top of her.

On television, the most popular soap operas show the ideal Indian woman as meek, submissive and accepting of her traditional role inside the home.

'Everyone's issue'

Any discussion of sexual violence has so far been taboo. In the past, politicians have said that women should dress modestly and not stay out late to avoid rape and molestations.

Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research and a longtime women's rights activist, said the fact that boys and men had joined the protests "gives us hope."

"Then it becomes everyone's issue, and not just a women's issue," she said.

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