Legal proceedings in the fatal gang-rape attack on a student in India's capital began Monday in a fast-track court for crimes against women that has stirred debate over how best to deliver justice to rape victims.
The court was also to hear arguments Monday from defense lawyers appealing for the case, currently being held in a closed court, to be opened to the public, court officials said.
"There is an immense interest in the public in this case, let it be all out in the open court," one of the defense lawyers, A.P. Singh, said.
Police say the victim and a male friend were heading home from an evening movie Dec. 16 when they boarded a bus, where they were attacked by the six assailants. The attackers beat the man and raped the woman, causing her massive internal injuries with a metal bar, police said.
The victims were eventually dumped on the roadside, and the woman died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.
Lawyers for the accused say police mistreated their clients and beat them to force them to confess. One lawyer said he would ask the Supreme Court to move the trial out of New Delhi.
The attack has sparked demands for wholesale changes in the way the country deals with crimes against women. Many families pressure relatives who have been assaulted not to press charges, police often refuse to file cases for those who do and courts rarely deliver swift justice in the few cases that do get filed.
Indian courts had a backlog of 33 million cases as of 2011. In a small sign of the sluggish pace of justice, only one of the 635 rape cases filed in the capital last year has ended in a conviction so far.
Police spokesman Rajan Bhagat cautioned that many other cases remained pending and it was not realistic to expect crimes committed late last year to have wound their way through the system yet.
New Delhi set up five fast-track courts in recent weeks to deal specifically with sexual assault cases.
The courts were an important step for clearing some of the 95,000 rape cases pending in India, said Ranjana Kumari, a women's activist and director of the Center for Social Research, a New Delhi based think tank.
"We need a system in which women can get justice quickly. Otherwise, in the normal course of things, it can take 10 or 12 or 14 years for cases to be taken up by the court. That is tantamount to denying justice to the victim," she said.
Others, however, worried that fast-track courts sacrifice justice for speed, overlooking evidence, limiting the cross-examination of witnesses and racing through hearings.
Vrinda Grover, a senior lawyer in the Delhi High Court and a women's rights activist, said the traditional court system needs to be overhauled — not abandoned — to give proper justice to rape victims.
"We don't want these cases of sexual crimes against women to become ghettoized in single courts. These cases have to be dealt with by across-the-board judges," she said. "What we need is that in all courts, these cases have to be taken seriously, and need to be addressed without granting unnecessary adjournments. And we need all judges and prosecutors to be oriented in this manner."
"These (fast-track-court) gimmicks do not work. They have not worked in the past," she said, adding that even these cases get bogged down once they go to appeals courts.
Kumari said victims could not afford to wait the decades it could take to reform the justice system.
"In the meantime, the fast-track courts are an absolute necessity