'The Fearless One' Rape Trial Galvanizes India
The horrific gang rape that killed Indian physical therapy student Jyoti Singh Pandey last December created an international uproar. Now, the trial is approaching a verdict amid heightened emotions and accusations that one of the defendants was murdered.
Courtroom 304 at the district court in the southern part of Delhi is an austere place, with its wood-paneled walls and fluorescent lights on the ceiling. The judge may look surprisingly modern as he sits between two large computer screens, but this is still India -- which helps explain why this case, which triggered worldwide outrage, seems to be hitting a few snags.
This time it is a defense attorney, Ajay Prakash Singh, keeping the court waiting: His car became stuck in a monsoon downpour. Ironically, Singh had previously stressed the importance of punctuality when appearing in court. Now the judges and the other attorneys are making fun of him.
It is a rare moment of merriment in this otherwise grim case, involving the brutal gang rape of physical therapy student Jyoti Singh Pandey last December. She was only 23 when she died, 13 days after her ordeal.
A Symbol of the Public's Rage
Investigators have assembled the gruesome details of the case, and Indian legal experts expect the defendants to be sentenced by the end of August. The case has already changed the country. In the past, men treated women as open game, rapes were normal and the police and courts never did much to combat them. But after Jyoti's death, tens of thousands took to the streets nationwide to demand the death penalty for the perpetrators.
They called the victim Nirbhaya, or "the fearless one." India's rising urban middle class identified with the modern young woman, who was -- until her path was brutally cut short by India's traditional male-dominated society -- in the process of escaping poverty by going to school. Jyoti also became a symbol of the public's rage against politicians and the police, who had showed little interest in protecting women.
The Indian public had been repeatedly shaken by new rape cases, but this time the public's anger forced the government to act. In March, the parliament in Delhi passed a law that provides harsher penalties for rapists, including the death penalty in especially severe cases. The judiciary also pledged to prosecute rapes in expedited courts in the future. In this trial, it will have to demonstrate that it means business.
A Brutally Horrific Crime
On the evening of Dec. 16, Jyoti and her 28-year-old boyfriend had gone to a movie and then boarded a bus that was not part of a scheduled service. The driver and five men, who pretended to be passengers, beat the student's boyfriend unconscious. Then they dragged the woman to the rear bench of the moving bus and attacked her, one after another. Later they threw the couple, naked and unconscious, onto the side of a highway, where 40 minutes passed before they were found by passerby.
Judge Yogesh Khanna, considered prudent and levelheaded, has summoned more than 80 witnesses in a trial that has taken seven months. He has been extremely thorough, given that the adult defendants could face the death penalty. The charges in the 574-page indictment are serious.
The transcript of the questioning of Jyoti, who was able to make a statement in a hospital ICU before she died, is especially harrowing. The severely injured woman described, among other things, how her tormentors bit her, raped her in turn, drove an iron bar deep into her lower abdomen and tore out parts of her internal organs with their bare hands.
The youngest defendant is on trial in a juvenile court in Delhi, and his sentence will likely be pronounced first. His behavior was apparently especially brutal. But because he was only 17 at the time of the crime, he can expect a sentence of no more than three years in prison -- even though the protesters, some of whom are still camped out near the government district, are demanding that he too be sentenced to death. A puppet dangles from a traffic sign in front of their protest camp.
An Attorney on a Mission
In the trial of the adult defendants, attorney Singh finally appears in the courtroom. Unlike most of the lawyers in the room, he is not wearing a black robe. Instead, Singh is dressed in white from head to foot, an outfit often worn in public by Indian politicians. In addition to working as an attorney, Singh heads the tiny Bhartiya Sampurn Krantikari -- "India's Total Revolution" -- party. The party promises to rid the subcontinent of all possible evils: corruption, the caste system, racism, unemployment and, of course, violence against women. However, it has yet to win any seats in parliament.
Critics say that Singh, who is defending two of the accused, has taken on the case merely to boost his public image and attract attention to his party. But taking on the case also required courage. The local bar association had forbidden its members from defending the men. Those lawyers who refused to comply were treated with hostility, creating chaotic scenes. For months, the court closed the trial to the public.
We meet with Singh in his house in northwestern Delhi. An SUV loaded with loudspeakers and posters is parked in front. Singh uses the vehicle to tour the streets during campaigns. He takes a seat behind a large desk.
He now regrets the decision to take on the defense of the two men, he says. "Many other clients have dropped me, because I no longer have enough time for them." The trial is very time-consuming, requiring Singh to appear in court almost daily. He characterizes the trial as "emotionally and financially" draining.
Emotions Run High in Court
Things are not looking good for his two clients. With the help of the testimony of relatives and neighbors, they had hoped to prove that they could not have been on the bus. According to the witnesses, one was attending a concert in a park at the time of the gang rape, while the other one was on a trip.
But a co-defendant, Mukesh Singh, shattered this line of defense. He testified that the two defendants had indeed been there, but that he had been unable to see what they were doing in the back of the bus. Singh claimed that he had been sitting in the separate driver's booth, where he was driving the bus at the request of his brother, the official bus driver, because the brother had had too much to drink. At some point, Singh told the court, he noticed that something strange was going on, at which point he stopped the bus and got off.
According to Ajay Singh, the attorney, the statement was concocted by Mukesh's attorney in a dirty move designed to save his client. "He was bought by the police," says Singh, who recently lost his temper in court. He berated the other attorney and attacked him physically. "I wish I could have kept on hitting him, but other people held me back."
Was a Defendant Murdered?
The attorney who is the subject of his anger, Vinod Kumar Anand, runs his firm in a windowless basement in a different Delhi district, a neighborhood where rickshaw vendors sell hot food and stray dogs sleep on top of parked cars. Attorney Anand believes that he can save Mukesh from the death penalty, even if it means sending the others to the gallows.
It won't be easy, because traces of the victim's DNA were allegedly found on his client's trousers. "That isn't conclusive evidence," the attorney argues. Besides, he says, Indian courts rate DNA evidence less highly than courts in the West.
Anand claims that he could also have saved Mukesh's older brother Ram Singh, the actual bus driver. But Ram Singh was found dead in his cell in March. He had been hanged. The authorities called it a suicide, but Anand claims it was murder.
He spreads out four photos on the desk, depicting the bus driver's body shortly before cremation. The details of his injuries are no longer recognizable. There was a puncture wound on Ram Singh's face and his ribs had been broken, says Anand. And a metal rod that had been inserted into Ram Singh's arm after a traffic accident was apparently sticking out of the arm.
Many in Delhi believe the bus driver was murdered in an effort by the authorities to quickly provide one sacrifice to the people clamoring for vengeance. If the defendants were declared guilty, they could appeal the verdict, and it would likely take years until a final sentence was handed down.
Jyoti's mother testified in court in mid-May. She wore a pink sari, and wept when she talked about her daughter. Her testimony was so moving that even defense attorney Anand chose not to question her. Nothing he could have said would have gone over well with the judge or the public.
'Our Life is Destroyed'
Now Jyoti's distraught mother sits in her tiny hut in the southern part of Delhi. The unpaved road outside is ripped up at the moment, while workers install sewage pipes, a luxury in this poor neighborhood. Residents believe the gesture is the government's attempt to show compassion for the family of the fearless one.
Jyoti's mother says that she could hardly bear to appear in court, where she came face to face with her daughter's presumed killers. They were sitting in a row along the rear wall of the courtroom.
"Our life is destroyed," she says. Only one piece of news has given her a small amount of relief in recent months: the news of the death of bus driver Ram Singh in his cell.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan