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India's gang rape murder trial to begin

04 February 2013, 13:36

New Delhi - The trial of five men accused of the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old Indian student in New Delhi in December was due to begin on Tuesday.

All have pleaded not guilty to charges including murder, gang rape, abduction, destroying evidence and criminal conspiracy at a fast-track court in the capital's southern area of Saket.

The accused are Ram Singh, a bus driver, and his brother Mukesh, Pawan Gupta, a fruit seller, Vinay Sharma, a gym instructor, and Akshay Thakur, a bus cleaner. If convicted, the men could face the death penalty.

A sixth suspect, 17-and-a-half years old, is to be tried in a juvenile court.

The student was allegedly beaten with an iron rod and raped by the men on a moving bus in the Indian capital on December 16. She died of injuries in a hospital in Singapore two weeks later.

The labyrinthine procedures of India's legal system have caused a lot of confusion. The following is an account of how such cases usually unfold.

Pre-trial stage

Pre-trial motions began with prosecutors laying charges against the accused in court.

All criminal cases go to a district or sessions court which is the trial court. A single judge usually presides.

The court hears legal argument on the charges from prosecution and defence. The judge determines which charges will go forward, or rules to discharge the accused if there are insufficient grounds for trial.


The trial begins after the framing of the charges as described above. If the accused plead not guilty, the trial begins.

"As the trial begins, the prosecution gives evidence to substantiate the charges," said RS Sodhi, a retired judge of the Delhi High Court. "The prosecution is asked to examine its witnesses who are later cross-examined by the defence."

The defence also presents its case.

At this stage, the judge can dismiss the trial if he considers the evidence to be insufficient.
That can also happen in the final stage of the trial which consists of final arguments by lawyers for both sides.

The judge makes the decision without a jury.

If the court finds the accused guilty, defence lawyers and the prosecution go through a final round of arguments on the sentence, which the judge imposes.


Anyone convicted can go to the High Court. If the High Court finds them guilty as well, they can appeal to the Supreme Court.

"Even if the Supreme Court upholds the verdicts, the accused can file a petition for a review of the judgement and later a curative petition that contends that there has been a palpable miscarriage of justice and the court must cure the defects in the judgement," Sodhi said.

A bench of two or more appellate judges usually hear such cases.

If the appellate courts uphold the conviction, the accused have the last resort of filing a clemency plea with the president.

"The president could grant clemency in various forms: reduce or modify the sentence, or totally waive the sentence and set him free," Sodhi said.

Time frame

There is no time frame for the trial or appeals, which often drag on for decades.
The trial in the 1992 gang rape case of Rajasthani woman Bhanwari Devi began in 1994.

All five defendants were acquitted in 1996 by a trial court and the appeal filed the same year is still pending in the Rajasthan High Court.

But the public pressure generated in the Delhi gang rape and murder case led to it being moved to a fast-track court.

This court is given fewer cases, which are heard continuously with a minimum of breaks. How fast it actually processes a case depends on the volume of evidence and the number of witnesses produced, lawyer Vrinda Grover said.

The Supreme Court has issued a directive to trial courts saying rape trials must be completed within two years and undue long adjournments should be avoided.



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