Murder charges pending in rape case in India

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NEW DELHI -- Police are set to bring formal murder charges against six men accused of gang-raping a woman aboard a New Delhi bus, amid protests demanding a rapid overhaul of how sexual assaults are prosecuted in India.

Charges are expected to be filed today in a court in the Indian capital, according to police spokesman Rajan Bhagat. One of the accused may be a juvenile and, as a result, subject to a separate judicial process. The six are alleged by police to have beaten and assaulted the 23-year-old physiotherapy student Dec. 16 before throwing her and a male companion from the vehicle as it drove along city streets.

The woman's death nearly two weeks later in a Singapore hospital fueled street demonstrations demanding that the government and police crack down on sex crimes, speed up prosecution of alleged rapists and toughen sentencing.

A three-judge panel headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Altamas Kabir will begin hearing a petition today seeking establishment of fast-track courts in all states to handle serious sexual offenses, said Pareena Swarup, a court advocate.

"In this case, the government is reacting exceptionally fast because of public protests," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research. "There should be change in our legal system so that other victims, who are waiting for justice, get similar treatment."

Breaking with precedent, the rape case will be heard on a daily basis once it begins, in a bid to meet calls for swift justice. Other fast-track courts will begin sitting in New Delhi this week.

"It will be our endeavor to ensure the harshest punishment in the book for the culprits," Dharmendra Kumar, special commissioner of police, said Saturday, hours after the death of the woman, who hasn't been named. Mr. Kumar said police added a murder charge to the case. Indian courts can hand down the death penalty for murder, while rape carries a maximum life sentence.

On the eve of today's hearing, new details emerged about the brutal assault that triggered weeks of soul-searching in New Delhi and beyond. The victims boarded the bus without knowing that it was running illegally, the Press Trust of India news agency reported, citing interviews with police it did not name. The suspects first attacked the 28-year-old man and, when the woman intervened to protect him, she was beaten and sexually assaulted, it said.

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