In this file photo protesters shout slogans as they try to break through a police cordon during a protest after the death of a gang rape victim in New Delhi, India.

New Delhi - Behind a barbed wire-topped wall by a busy New Delhi highway a teenager sits alone in a room, accused of taking part in a gang-rape that first sparked nationwide protests and now a debate over whether Indian law is too lenient on juveniles.

Police allege the youth and five men in December lured a 23-year-old trainee physiotherapist and her male friend on to a bus where they repeatedly raped her and beat her with a metal bar before tossing the bleeding couple on to a road. The woman died of internal injuries two weeks later.

Officials at a juvenile detention facility in Delhi have taken the unusual step of keeping the teenager isolated from other detainees for his own safety. They say the brutality of the attack angered the other inmates, some of whom have been convicted of murder.

Indian authorities have not disclosed any details about where the teenager is being held and he has been kept out of the media spotlight since his arrest on December 21.

At the youth detention centre where the teenager is being held, he has been mostly confined to a single room of the unit, two officers responsible for his care said. Most other inmates stay in rooms of two to four people.

The unit is reserved for offenders serving time for violent crimes who are considered a danger to inmates in other detention centres. The boy is kept away from other detainees, who would attack him if they could, the officers responsible for his care said.

“They watch the television in the dormitories and get very angry when they see news of the rape,” one of the officers said.

The youth is to be tried separately from his five adult co-accused. Their trial began on Tuesday. A Juvenile Justice Board will hear his case on February 14. If found guilty, he will face a maximum of three years in juvenile detention because he was under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. That has sparked debate about the leniency of Indian law on juvenile offenders. His co-accused face the death penalty.

Last week, authorities ruled he was 17, citing school records. However, questions remain about his age, in part because his mother says she does not know how old he is.

Like millions born into poverty in rural India, the youth has no birth certificate.

India’s juvenile justice laws have evolved over the past decade and are now in line with UN norms. India has raised the minimum age teenagers can be tried as adults to 18 from 16.

In response to the outcry after the rape, the government fast-tracked new, tougher penalties for sex crimes. But it has resisted calls to return the adult age to 16.

Amod Kanth, a former Delhi police chief who helped draft the laws, said the youth had been unfairly judged by the police and media before a trial had taken place. Kanth said it made no sense to change laws on the basis of one case.

Some 33 000 crimes were committed by juveniles in India last year, the highest number in a decade. Juveniles commit a tiny proportion of total crimes and far less than other nations such as the United States. – Reuters