Lawyer says police beat Delhi gang-rape suspects

A defence lawyer in the New Delhi gang-rape and murder case accused police on Thursday of beating confessions out of the suspects as they appeared in court for a second time.

Speaking ahead of the closed hearing before a city magistrate, Supreme Court lawyer M.L. Sharma told AFP the five adult suspects aged from 19 to 35 had been forced to confess following their arrest soon after the December 16 crime.

He also suggested his defence would cast doubt on the character of the 23-year-old victim, a physiotherapy student who had been to watch a film with her boyfriend when they were lured onto a bus and savagely assaulted.

"All the accused have been badly beaten by the police and they have used the third degree to extract the statement that suits the evidence they have collected," M.L. Sharma told AFP outside Saket District Court in southern Delhi.

"My clients have been forced to confess to crimes that they did not commit."

A spokesman for Delhi police refused to comment on the allegations. Officers have said they have strong forensic evidence against the accused and testimony from the boyfriend.

Sharma is defending two of the adult defendants, who are expected to plead not guilty. Two other Supreme Court advocates were confirmed as counsel for the other three during the hearing on Thursday.

The pleas of the other three men have not been decided yet, their lawyers V.K. Anand and A.P. Singh told reporters. A sixth accused, who is 17, will be tried in a juvenile court.

A police bus believed to be transporting the five suspects, mostly New Delhi slum residents who are being held in top-security Tihar jail, was seen arriving at the court before their scheduled appearance at about 2:30pm (0900 GMT).

Lawyers said afterwards the next hearing had been set for January 14.

After their first appearance on Monday was marred by chaotic scenes, the presiding magistrate Namrita Aggarwal ordered the court cleared and imposed restrictions limiting media reporting of the case.

A court officer had said the case would be transferred to a fast-track trial court during Thursday's hearing, but lawyers said outside the courtroom that this had not happened.

If the men are convicted, they could face the death penalty which is reserved for "the rarest of rare" cases in India.

Police say the group lured the woman and her boyfriend onto the private bus in Delhi when they were trying to return home from the cinema.

They then took it in turns to rape the woman and violate her with an iron bar, causing fatal internal injuries, and well as beating her male companion.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Sharma was quoted as saying the companion was "wholly responsible" for the incident because 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," he told the financial newswire.

Sharma told AFP that he had not been trying to smear the victim.

"I did speak to Bloomberg but did not say anything about the victim. I only told them that women are respected in India, they are mothers, sisters, friends but tell me which country respects a prostitute."

Asked if that meant that he regarded the victim as a prostitute, Sharma replied: "No, not at all, but I have to protect my clients and prove that they did not commit this heinous crime."

The victim died in a Singapore hospital, 13 days after the attack which triggered mass protests across India.

The government, which has been on the defensive over the levels of crimes against women, on Thursday promised a series of safety measures including night-time patrols by police in Delhi.

"Every police station will have at least two women police officers and 10 constables. A women's help desk will also be set up at each station," Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said at a press conference.

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