New Delhi - A defence lawyer accused Indian police on Thursday of beating confessions out of five men charged with murdering and gang-raping a student in New Delhi, as they were due to appear in court again.
Speaking before a hearing at which a magistrate is expected to transfer the case to a fast-track court, ML Sharma told AFP that his clients had been beaten while in custody and were innocent of the charges.
A spokesman for Delhi police refused to comment on the allegations.
Sharma is defending three of the five adult defendants. The three are expected to plead not guilty to a string of charges over the brutal attack on a moving bus on December 16 which sparked mass protests across India.
The other two defendants have yet to get themselves a lawyer while a sixth accused, who is 17, will be tried in a juvenile court.
“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,” ML Sharma said outside Saket District Court in southern Delhi.
“My clients have been forced to confess to crimes that they did not commit.”
The five were expected to appear in court from about 2.30pm (09.00 GMT) after their first appearance on Monday was marred by chaotic scenes which led the presiding magistrate to order the court cleared.
A court officer said Monday that the case would be transferred to a fast-track trial court during Thursday's hearing, which will take place behind closed doors with media coverage restricted by a gagging order.
If the men are convicted, they could face the death penalty.
Police say the group lured the 23-year-old woman and a male companion onto the bus in New Delhi after they had spent the evening at the cinema and were trying to go home.
They then took it in turns to rape the woman and violate her with an iron bar as well as assault her partner before throwing them off the bus.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Sharma was quoted as saying the male companion of the murdered 23-year-old 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.
“Even an underworld don would not like to touch a girl with respect.”
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 and soul-searching over the levels of violence against women.
The father of the victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons, said in a television interview he was proud of his daughter and believed her death had served as a badly-needed wake of call.
“She has brought an awakening to society. Society cannot any longer turn a blind eye to these sorts of incidences which are happening every day,” he told Britain's ITV network.
“We have to change ourselves. If there are no change then these horrible things won't stop. The public have to wake up now.”
While gang-rapes are commonplace in India, the Delhi case has touched a nerve, sparking three weeks of introspection about the widespread harassment and abuse of Indian women and their difficulty in reporting in sex crime.