Lawyer for accused in fatal New Delhi gang rape now blaming victims

Television crew take positions in front of the Saket district court where the accused in a gang rape are being tried, in New Delhi, India, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013.

NEW DELHI — The lawyer representing three of the men charged with the gang rape and murder of a medical student aboard a moving bus in New Delhi has blamed the victims for the assault, saying he has never heard of a “respected lady” being raped in India.

Manohar Lal Sharma said his clients will plead not guilty to all charges when they make their next court appearance. His comments come as Indians have reacted with outrage to the opinions of politicians and a religious preacher who have accused westernized women of inviting sexual assaults. Sharma said the male companion of the murdered 23-year-old was “wholly responsible” for the incident as the unmarried couple should not have been on the streets at night.

“Until today I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady,” Sharma said in an interview at a cafe outside the Supreme Court in India’s capital. “Even an underworld don would not like to touch a girl with respect.”

Sharma’s comments highlight frequently aired attitudes toward women in India. Activists say reporting of sex crimes and police investigations of rape are hindered by a tendency to blame the victim for not following the traditional, conservative social roles ascribed to women.

“This is the mentality which most Indian men are suffering from unfortunately,” said Ranjana Kumari, director for the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research. “That is the mindset that has been perpetrating this crime because they justify it indirectly, you asked for it so it is your responsibility.”

A spiritual guru, Asharam, sparked an outcry earlier this week when he said the New Delhi victim was equally responsible and should have “chanted God’s name and fallen at the feet of the attackers” to stop the assault.

Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the pro-Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that underpins the country’s main opposition political party, said rapes only occur in Indian cities, not in its villages, because women there adopt western lifestyles.

Sharma said the man and woman should not have been travelling back late in the evening and making their journey on public transport. He also said it was the man’s responsibility to protect the woman and that he had failed in his duty.

“The man has broken the faith of the woman,” Sharma said Wednesday. “If a man fails to protect the woman, or she has a single doubt about his failure to protect her, the woman will never go with that man.”

Sharma, 56, a Supreme Court lawyer for the last two decades, says that his clients are innocent.

“This is a very complicated case and the matter has not been solved yet,” he said. Police have said they have DNA evidence linking all six to the crime.

Ram Singh, the driver of the bus and the alleged ringleader, is struggling to communicate and fluctuating between crying and laughing, Sharma said. Sharma, who has also been appointed to represent Singh’s brother Mukesh and Akshay Kumar Singh, who is unrelated, plans to challenge police over their handling of the evidence.

Sharma’s appointment comes after chaotic scenes on Jan. 7 that forced the magistrate to order a private hearing over concerns for the safety of the accused. Sharma was one of two lawyers denounced by other advocates for volunteering to represent the defendants. Arguments and scuffles over his offer led the magistrate to order the courtroom be cleared and future sessions to be held behind closed doors.

The gang rape of the woman on Dec. 16 provoked a sustained and charged debate about the safety of women in the world’s biggest democracy. The brutality of the crime and allegations by the male friend of the victim that it took police 45 minutes to respond to calls outraged the nation.

The attack on the woman and her friend, which led to her death almost two weeks later, forced the government to address demands for swifter justice, safer streets and heavier sentences in rape cases. India’s top court on Jan. 4 began considering demands for faster trials and the suspension of lawmakers accused of sex crimes.

Sharma said he met the defendants for the first time on Jan. 7 for 15 minutes and was due to talk with them again this week. The three defendants he is representing put their thumb prints on forms appointing Sharma as their lawyer because they are illiterate, according to a copy of the documents given to Bloomberg News.

Five of the six accused will be tried for abduction, rape and murder, among other charges, government prosecutor Rajiv Mohan said Jan. 6. The other, said to be a juvenile, has been appearing before a separate judicial panel.

The male friend of the woman who was repeatedly raped and brutalized aboard the bus last month has recounted the two-hour attack which ended with the couple being thrown on to the roadside, ignored by passersby and argued over by police.

In a Jan. 4 interview with the Zee News television channel, the man, who along with the rape victim hasn’t been officially identified, described how they were lured on to the bus operating illegally on the night of Dec. 16 as they returned home from a movie theatre in the Indian capital.

The six men aboard the bus, “which had tinted windows and curtains, had laid a trap for us,” he told the channel. “They beat us up, hit us with an iron rod, snatched our clothes and belongings and threw us off the bus on a deserted stretch.” The woman, who was flown to Singapore for medical treatment, died in the hospital Dec. 29.

Sharma says there are number of discrepancies in the police’s version of the events, which he will reveal in court. The only example he was willing to give is the failure of the police almost three weeks after the attack to determine whether one of the accused is a juvenile.

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