The trial of five men charged with the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a New Delhi bus began in a closed courtroom with opening arguments by the prosecution lawyers in a special fast-track court set up just weeks ago to handle sexual assault cases.
The brutal attack last month set off protests across India and opened a debate about its epidemic of violence against women.
A government committee established because of the attack has called for a complete overhaul of the way the criminal justice system deals with rape, sexual assaults and crimes against women in general.
The five men on trial — who face a maximum sentence of death by hanging if convicted — covered their faces with woolen caps as they walked into the courtroom on Thursday surrounded by a phalanx of armed police.
Two hours later, after proceedings were over, they were whisked away by the police.
Details of the proceedings were not available because of a gag order against revealing what happens inside the courtroom, and court officials who provided some information spoke on condition of anonymity because of the order.
Closing courtrooms to the public and the media is routine in Indian rape cases, even though defense lawyers had argued that since the victim is dead, the proceedings in this case should be opened.
Judge Yogesh Khanna turned down requests by journalists that they be briefed on the day’s proceedings and said the gag order would remain.
The next hearing in the case was set for tomorrow, when the defense will present its opening arguments.
A sixth suspect in the case has claimed he is a juvenile and is expected to be tried in a juvenile court.
Dozens of police were outside the sprawling court complex in south New Delhi where the trial is taking place. Inside the court, about 30 policemen blocked access to the room where Khanna heard the prosecution’s case.
Outside the courtroom, scores of journalists and curious onlookers crowded the hallway.
Prosecutor Dayan Krishnan warned defense lawyers that if they spoke to journalists, he would slap contempt of court notices on them, defense lawyer V.K. Anand said.
Police say the victim and a male friend were attacked after boarding a bus on Dec. 16 as they tried to return home after an evening showing of the movie Life of Pi.
The six men, the only occupants of the private bus, beat the man with a metal bar, raped the woman and used the bar to inflict massive internal injuries to her, police said.
The victims were dumped naked on the roadside, and the woman died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.