POLICE SAID a man on trial for the gang rape and fatal beating of a woman aboard a New Delhi bus has been found dead in an Indian jail, suspected of having taken his own life – but his lawyer and family allege he was killed.
Ram Singh, who was accused of driving the bus on which the 23-year-old student was raped by a group of six men in December, had been under suicide watch at New Delhi’s Tihar Jail.
His death is raising further questions about a criminal justice system already being criticized for failing to protect the nation’s women.
Singh and his four fellow defendants were facing the death penalty if convicted of the attack, which horrified Indians and set off national protests.
A sixth accused is being tried and jailed separately because he is a juvenile.
India’s deputy home minister, R. P. N. Singh, said an inquiry had been ordered into the suicide, according to the Press Trust of India.
Ram Singh’s family and lawyer alleged foul play in his death.
“There were no circumstances which could have led to Ram Singh” ending his own life, his lawyer V.K. Anand said. “There was no mental stress. He was very happy.” Lawyers for the defendants had previously accused police of beating confessions out of the men.
Father: Suspect had been abused in prison
Ram Singh’s father, Mangelal Singh, said his son had been raped in prison by other inmates and had been repeatedly threatened by inmates and guards.
Nevertheless, he said he visited his son four days ago and the man appeared fine and gave no hint of the despair that could drive him to take his own life.
Ram Singh, 34, also had a badly injured hand and would have been unable to orchestrate a suicide, his father said, speaking from outside his small home in a New Delhi slum.
“Somebody has killed him,” he said, insisting he would push for a top level investigation into the death.
Mangelal Singh said he feared for the safety of another son who is also on trial in the rape case.
The defendants were being housed in separate buildings on the jail grounds and were all under suicide watch, a jail official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly on the matter.
Indian jails have a reputation for overcrowding, poor management and brutal treatment of inmates.
The rape victim and a male friend were attacked after boarding the bus as they tried to return home after watching a movie on December 16.
Trial of other four defendants continues
The six men, the only occupants of the private bus, beat the man with a metal bar, raped the woman and used the bar to inflict massive internal injuries to her, police say. The victims were dumped naked on the roadside, and the woman died from her injuries two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.
The brutal attack set off nationwide protests about India’s treatment of women and spurred the government to hurry through a new package of laws to protect them.
Singh’s death comes as the trial was deep underway, with another hearing scheduled for earlier today. The four surviving defendants appeared in court, but left after a short time because their lawyers were not there amid an attorney’s strike.
K.T. S. Tulsi, a former top lawyer in the office of the solicitor general of India, said Singh’s death should have no impact on the trial, which is being held in a closed courtroom under a gag order that prevents news organization from publishing details of the proceedings.
He said the death highlighted how important it was for society not to demonizse people who have been accused of crimes but not yet been convicted.
“It is so unfortunate that the media goes on to presume that they are guilty and goes on to condemn them and demonise them to an extent that it makes the life of these people not worth living,” he said.
In 2011, 68 inmates in India died from suicide and another eight were killed by fellow inmates, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau.
Tihar Jail is badly overcrowded with nearly twice as many prisoners as it was designed to hold. Jail authorities have been working to soften its reputation in part by selling TJ’s cookies baked by the inmates to the public.