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India's Supreme Court will hear a petition Wednesday on behalf of one of the defendants in the New Delhi rape and murder case that has provoked mass protests in that nation. One of the accused, Mukesh Singh, has asked to remove the case from the capital on the grounds that the atmosphere is too charged to ensure a fair trial.
Attorney M.L. Sharma, who has said he is defending Mukesh Singh as "a service to mankind," initially filed the petition, which was postponed by a day.
The case is currently before the Fast Track Court specially established for cases of violent crime against women.
There is no jury in the trial, rather is it being heard and decided by a judge.
Sharma said that in New Delhi the judiciary and the government are feeling the weight of tremendous public pressure to convict.
But lawyerly confusion also abounds. A second defense attorney, V.K. Anand, now says he represents Mukesh Singh as well as his brother, Ram Singh. The latter is the driver of the bus that was used the night last month that the 23-year-old student was gang raped and her male companion beaten with an iron rod. She died two weeks later from injuries sustained in the attack.
The six accused in the case are five men and one juvenile who is being tried separately. By virtue of his age, 17 and half, hecannot face any term of punishment greater than three years. His circumstance has ignited a debate over whether India ought to lower its age of majority from 18 to 16.
The five men charged with gang rape, kidnapping, and murder briefly appeared before Judge Yogesh Khanna on Monday. It was their first appearance in the Fast Track Court, which did not get off to a rapid start.
The Judge ordered an adjournment until Thursday. Lawyers expect that after that, the case will be tried on a daily basis.
On Monday, Judge Khanna also extended an earlier ban that closed the proceedings to the public and the media.
The Dec. 16 brutal attack of the young student on a bus generated a wave of pubic revulsion and demands for the death penalty for the accused.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Altamas Kabir will lead the bench in Wednesday's hearing about the request for a change in venue of the trial.
The chief justice was quoted by local media as describing the attack as "the most shameful thing that could have happened," and that he "salutes everybody who took part" in the demonstrations that followed the assault. He added that he wished "I could have been there, but I can't."
Attorney A.P. Singh, meanwhile, has said his client, Akshay Singh, hid under a seat in the bus while a "quarrel" erupted and saw no sexual assault. The lawyer said that "the charges are false and fabricated. There was only a quarrel on the bus." When reporters asked how he would explain the presence of what police say was blood and semen in the bus where the attack took place, Singh replied, "in a quarrel anything can happen."
A.P. Singh also said that he had received threatening telephone calls in which an unidentified person warned him of "dire consequences" if he continued to represent the accused. "How can I proceed as defense counsel if I don't feel safe?" he asked.
The defendants have not yet entered pleas in the case. That is not expected to happen until after the framing of the charges, a process that lawyers say is expected to begin in the Fast Track Court on Thursday.
(NPR's Julie McCarthy is based in New Delhi.)
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