NEW DELHI — Authorities filed rape and murder charges Thursday against five men accused of the gang rape of a 23-year-old university student on a New Delhi bus, a crime that horrified Indians and provoked a national debate about the treatment of women.
Police said they plan to push for the death penalty in the case, as government officials promised new measures to protect women in the nation's capital.
Prosecutor Rajiv Mohan filed a case of rape, tampering with evidence, kidnapping, murder and other charges against the men in a new fast-track court in south Delhi inaugurated only the day before to deal specifically with crimes against women. Mohan asked for a closed trial, and a hearing was set for Saturday.
The men charged are Ram Singh, 33, the bus driver; his brother Mukesh Singh, 26, who cleans buses for the same company; Pavan Gupta, 19, a fruit vendor; Akshay Singh, 24, a bus washer; and Vinay Sharma, 20, a fitness trainer. They did not appear in court.
A sixth suspect was listed as 17 and was expected to be tried in a juvenile court, where the maximum sentence would be three years in a reform facility. Police also detained the owner of the bus on accusations that he used false documents to obtain permits to run the private bus service.
Media reports say police have gathered 30 witnesses, and the charges have been detailed in a document running more than 1,000 pages. The document was not released Thursday. The Bar Association said its lawyers would not defend the suspects because of the nature of the crime, but the court is expected to appoint attorneys to defend them.
"Strict, strict, strict punishment should be given to them," said Ashima Sharma, an 18-year-old student attending a protest Thursday. "A very strict punishment ... that all men of India should be aware that they are not going to treat the women like the way they treated her."
The woman, who died of her injuries in a Singapore hospital Saturday, was attacked Dec. 16 after boarding a bus with a male companion after watching an evening showing of the movie "Life of Pi" at an upscale mall. The vehicle was a charter bus that illegally picked up the two passengers, authorities said.
The pair were attacked for hours as the bus drove through the city, even passing through police checkpoints during the assault. They were eventually dumped naked on the side of the road. The woman, whose name was not released, was assaulted with an iron bar and suffered severe internal injuries that eventually proved fatal.
The attack caused outrage across India, sparking protests and demands for tough new rape laws, better police protection and a sustained campaign to change society's views about women. The government has set up a series of panels to look into the incident and make reform recommendations, and women's activists hope the assault will mark a turning point for the country.
Outside the court, about 50 woman lawyers held a protest, demanding wholesale changes in the criminal justice system to ensure justice for women. "Punish the police, sensitize judiciary, eradicate rape," read one protester's sign.
Indian Chief Justice Altamas Kabir said the accused should be tried swiftly, but cautioned that they needed to be given a fair trial and not be subjected to mob justice.
"Let us not lose sight of the fact that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty," he told reporters Wednesday, while inaugurating the new fast-track court. "Let us balance things. Let us not get carried away. Provide justice in a fair but swift manner so that faith of people is once again restored that the judiciary is there behind the common man."
The government is to set up four other such courts in the capital to hold timely trials in sexual assault cases, which often get bogged down for years in India's notoriously sluggish court system. The new courts will send the message "that these matters are going to be dealt with seriously," Kabir said.
Many cases never even get to court in a country where there is intense social pressure against families reporting sexual assaults and where women are often blamed for the attacks they suffer. When women do report rapes, police often refuse to file charges and pressure the victims to reach a compromise with their attackers.
In a sign that attitudes toward such behavior might be changing, and that even powerful men are being held accountable, police in the northeastern state of Assam arrested a leader of the ruling Congress party Thursday on accusations he raped a woman in a village in the early hours of the morning.
Footage on Indian television showed the extraordinary scene of local women surrounding the man, ripping off his shirt and repeatedly slapping him across the face.
Police said the man, Bikram Singh Brahma, was visiting the village of Santipur on the Bhutan border when he entered a woman's house and raped her at about 2 a.m. Amid the screams, villagers ran to the home and captured the man, said G.P. Singh, a senior police officer in the area.
"We are taking this issue very seriously," Singh said.
Associated Press writer Wasbir Hussain contributed to this report from Gauhati, India.