NEW DELHI: An Indian teenager accused of taking part in the Dec. 16 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi will be tried as a juvenile, facing a maximum of three years in prison if convicted, a special panel ruled on Monday.
The ruling shocked the victim's father, who watched the news flash across his television screen.
“A sudden current ran through my body in disbelief. I can't believe this,” the father told Reuters. “How can they declare him a minor? Do they not see what they did?”
The teenager has not yet been formally charged because police were hoping he would be declared an adult so they could include him in the main trial of his five co-accused.
He does not have a lawyer and his account of what happened on Dec. 16 is not known.
Lawyers for the five accused men said they would plead not guilty and one has accused police of torturing him, his lawyer said.
The panel's decision on the youth is likely to infuriate many people, including protesters, some police and political leaders, who have called for the age at which people can be tried as adults to be lowered to 16 from 18.
A government committee examining changes to sexual crime laws, however, last week ruled out such a move.
Police allege that the 17-year-old and five men gang-raped and severely beat the student on a moving bus in the capital before dumping her and a male friend in the road.
The woman was so badly injured that she died of massive organ failure in a Singapore hospital two weeks later.
The case has sparked national debate about rampant crime against women, and President Pranab Mukherjee, made an unusual call in a television state-of-the nation address on Friday for the country to “reset its moral compass”.
A juvenile board, comprising a magistrate and two child welfare activists, said it accepted school records showing the juvenile, who may not be identified, as having been born on June 4, 1995. It said a bone density test to determine his age was not necessary.
Police, who suspect that he is older than 17, said they could appeal the board's ruling, although there was no immediate plan to do so.
“This is wrong. We need the bone test to determine the accused real age, certificates can be forged,” the victim's younger brother told Reuters by telephone.
The teenager attended Monday's hearing but journalists waiting outside the building did not catch a glimpse of him. He will now stand trial before the juvenile board and if convicted will be sent to a juvenile detention centre.
Across town, lawyers for his five fellow accused presented arguments for the first time on Monday in a pre-trial hearing that will determine what charges the five men will face when the case eventually goes to trial.
Outside the wood-panelled courtroom dozens of policemen armed with bamboo canes or “lathis” jostled with reporters waiting to get a glimpse of the five accused. The men, wearing grey woollen caps and scarves to hide their faces, were hand-held by policemen as they were led inside.
In India, all rape cases are held in closed court to protect the identity of the victim. This rule is being enforced in the New Delhi gang rape case even though the victim's family has already said they are not opposed to her being identified.
The judge hearing the case, Yogesh Khanna, has taken the additional steps of cautioning lawyers not to talk about the proceedings outside of court and warned the media not to repeat any information they glean from sources.
The prosecutor had complained that defence lawyers were violating an earlier court order by briefing reporters.
The scarcity of information about a case that shocked the world stands in stark contrast to the intense media coverage that preceded the start of the court proceedings.
There is still simmering public outrage over police handling of the case and the slow response by the government, which was caught off guard by street protests that turned violent.
Many Indians still have questions about what really happened on the night of Dec. 16, what drove the women's attackers to assault her so savagely, and how such a brutal crime could take place in an affluent and modern part of the capital.
The government panel set up after the gang-rape blamed police negligence for a climate of insecurity in New Delhi, known as India's “rape capital”.