In India Rape Trial, Even Fast-Track Justice Plods

By Muneeza Naqvi 9 August 2013

NEW DELHI — The government promised swift justice after the gang rape of a young university student on a moving bus in India’s capital late last year sparked nationwide outrage.

But speed is relative in a legal system so overburdened that even a normal criminal trial can stretch well over a decade.

Seven months later, the trial in a special “fast track” court is still plodding along.

Take a recent day in the case.

The court was in session just two hours, as it is every day of the trial. Only one witness—out of nearly 100 called in the case—had time to testify. The judge himself translated the testimony sentence-by-sentence from Hindi into English, and carefully corrected the court stenographer’s errors.

“That’s not how you spell ‘sign,’” the judge admonished, as assembled reporters and police nodded off in boredom.

That was one of the more efficient days in the trial.

On the bad days, the three mercurial defense lawyers delay proceedings with their infighting, accusing each other of colluding with the police or the prosecution. Or witnesses listed for cross-examination don’t show up—so the court adjourns early.

The attack on the 23-year-old woman in the heart of New Delhi on Dec. 16 shook a country long inured to brutality against its women. Hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the streets demanding justice now, not the usual yearslong trial.

The pressure led to the creation of a fast-track court for violence against women, and the rape was its first case. Optimists say closing arguments could be made by the end of August and a verdict reached in September.

“The judge has a busy case load and all of us lawyers also have other clients. We cannot drop all of them and just work on this case,” said A.P. Singh, one of the defense lawyers.

While it’s not unusual in other countries for high-profile cases to drag on, the court hearing this trial was formed specifically for speed, a standard it hardly begins to meet.

Still, if the case does wrap up soon, it would be remarkably fast by Indian standards.

One reason for the delays in India’s justice system is a shortage of judges. India—a country of 1.2 billion people—has approximately 11 judges for every million people, compared with roughly 110 per million in the United States, according to a 2009 report by India’s Law Commission, which was set up by the Law Ministry to suggest reforms. Then there is the endemic problem of corruption, which delays the process of gathering evidence and ensuring cases are trial ready. Court procedures lack flexibility and often involve excruciating layers of paperwork.

The commission has suggested the entire legal system be overhauled, with more judges, time limits on trials and bans on “frivolous” adjournments.

Meanwhile, the rape case keeps throwing up new twists. Last month, the lawyer of two of the surviving adult defendants accused a third of changing his testimony at the last minute to get a lighter sentence at the cost of his co-accused.

The four defendants are accused of convincing the woman and her male companion to board an off-duty bus after the pair had watched an evening movie at an upscale shopping mall. The police say the men then raped the woman, using a metal rod to inflict such horrific injuries that she died two weeks later at a Singapore hospital. The four adult defendants all face charges of gang rape, murder and kidnapping and are likely to face the death sentence if convicted. A fifth defendant was found dead in his cell in March and a sixth is being tried as a juvenile.

The verdict in the trial of the juvenile was expected last month but has been indefinitely delayed.

Mukesh Singh has testified he was driving the bus—even though his brother was the official bus driver—and did not attack the woman. But he said all the other defendants charged were there. The others have all claimed they were framed by the police and were not on the bus.

A.P. Singh, who represents two other defendants, said Mukesh Singh had earlier said he didn’t know who was on the bus, but changed his account because “his lawyer has been hijacked by the police and is colluding with them.”

One of the lawyers on Mukesh Singh’s defense team, Vibhor Anand, called A.P. Singh’s accusations “weird.”

“My client is only speaking the truth. He hasn’t changed his story at all. These are all false stories cooked up by other defense counsel,” Anand said.

News reports say defense lawyers have shouted at one another in court. On a recent day in court, one defense lawyer smirked and giggled openly as another’s witness testified. The four accused, who in the early days of the trial came to court with their faces covered by caps and scarves, surrounded by dozens of policemen, now sit at the back of the courtroom listening blankly to the ongoing testimony. Each man is flanked by an officer. A few other policemen wait outside the courtroom.

While prosecutors refused to talk on the record to The Associated Press, news reports say they have consistently blamed the defense team for deliberately delaying proceedings. The defense blames the prosecutors, who have called a whopping 82 witnesses compared to their 15.

Rebecca John, a criminal lawyer who practices in India’s top court, said the prosecution had put up such a massive witness list because of the high profile nature of the case. She also criticized the fast track court system, saying it promised justice in only a few very visible cases.

“The entire Indian legal system needs to be overhauled and made fast-track,” she said. “When you fast-track one case out of 100 you actually slow-track all the others.”