The lawyer for three of the six men accused of the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old New Delhi student says his clients are innocent and that police authorities have tampered with crucial evidence in the case.
“They are innocent,” Manohar Lal Sharma said of his three clients before a second preliminary court hearing in Delhi on Thursday morning.
Sharma also said his clients have been beaten and threatened by other inmates deliberately placed by police in their cells in Delhi’s Tihar prison, adding, “you can’t believe the reality of Indian prisons.”
Five of the six men were formally charged with rape and murder this week. The sixth suspect, a 17-year-old will be tried as a juvenile, BBC News reports.
On December 16, Jyoti Singh Pandey — who was recently publicly identified by her father in the press — boarded a bus in New Delhi after watching the Life of Pi at a cinema in the capital with a male friend, Awindra Pandey.
During that bus journey, the pair were beaten with iron rods by six men while Jyoti was repeatedly raped then assaulted with one of the rods. After the attack the pair were stripped and thrown off the bus while it was still moving.
Awindra Pandey, a 28-year-old software engineer, has since spoken of the attack in a harrowing television interview on Zee News, an Indian television network.
The extreme nature of the case and subsequent death of the victim on December 29 from multiple injuries has sparked massive protests in India, and international focus on the country’s endemic problem of sexual violence against women.
The Independent reports that Sharma’s comments are just the latest in a series of inflammatory and contradictory statements he has made over the past two days.
On Thursday Sharma said the dead woman’s male traveling companion had “betrayed” her and that “the boyfriend is responsible for the whole thing.” The lawyer offered no details for that claim and a few hours later appeared to backtrack from his statement saying it “was only my opinion.”
Sharma claims he represents the bus driver Ram Singh, Singh’s brother Mukesh, and another man, Akshay Thakur. He said all three will plead not guilty.
Confusingly, another lawyer, V.K. Anand, also says he is representing the two Singh brothers, said The Independent.
A third lawyer, Vivek Sharma, claims to represent a fourth suspect, Pawan Gupta, and says his client will also plead not guilty.
Sharma is claiming that police authorities forced his clients to make incriminating statements in order to close the high profile case as quickly as possible. “What happened to this woman was so heinous, so horrible,” Sharma said, adding, “the police will manipulate the facts.”
According to BBC News, on Thursay morning Sharma told reporters outside the court that 22-year-old suspect, Mukesh Singh, was “coerced into admission. He’s unable to speak now.”
“All these people have been tortured badly. It’s under pressure that they have made statements in court. Evidence has been manipulated to calm the anger among people.”
The Independent notes that Sharma appears to be preparing a defense that will state that class and caste prejudices in India are the reasons his clients have been charged. Sharma says his clients were picked up because the police needed to make quick arrests due to the publicity surrounding the case.
“If the parents of these boys had money, they would not be in court today,” he said.
On Thursday, the five suspects appeared in court circled by police and had their faces covered with scarves and hats. No decision was taken on moving the case to a fast-track trial and the court said the charge-sheet needed more scrutiny.
On Monday when the five men appeared in court for the first time to be formally charged with rape and murder there were chaotic scenes in the courtroom as lawyers argued over who was representing who.
Magistrates subsequently ordered that the preliminary hearings would be held behind closed doors.
If convicted all five men will face the death penalty. The sixth suspect, as a juvenile, could face three years in a reform facility under the maximum sentencing allowed.
Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat refused to comment on Sharma’s statements and cited legal restrictions.
Last week, prosecutor Rajiv Mohan said a DNA test confirmed that the blood of the victim matched stains found on the clothes of all the accused, BBC News reports.