Defendants' lawyer lays blame on India rape victims

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NEW DELHI -- The lawyer representing three of the men charged with the gang rape and murder of a medical student aboard a moving bus in New Delhi has blamed the victims for the assault, saying he has never heard of a "respected lady" being raped in India.

Manohar Lal Sharma said Wednesday that his clients would plead not guilty to all charges when they make their next court appearance today. His comments come as Indians have reacted with outrage to the opinions of politicians and a religious preacher who have accused Westernized women of inviting sexual assaults. Mr. Sharma said the male companion of the murdered 23-year-old was "wholly responsible" for the incident, as 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," Mr. Sharma said in an interview at a cafe outside the Supreme Court in India's capital. "Even an underworld don would not like to touch a girl with respect."

Mr. Sharma's comments highlight frequently aired attitudes toward women in India. Activists say reporting of sex crimes and police investigations of rape are hindered by a tendency to blame the victim for not following the traditional, conservative social roles ascribed to women.

"This is the mentality which most Indian men are suffering from, unfortunately," said Ranjana Kumari, director for the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research. "That is the mind-set that has been perpetrating this crime, because they justify it indirectly -- you asked for it, so it is your responsibility."

A spiritual guru, Asharam, sparked an outcry earlier this week when he said the New Delhi victim was equally responsible and should have "chanted God's name and fallen at the feet of the attackers" to stop the assault.

Mohan Bhagwat, head of the pro-Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that underpins the nation's main opposition political party, said rapes occur only in Indian cities, not in its villages, because women there adopt Western lifestyles.

Mr. Sharma said the man and woman should not have been traveling back late in the evening and making their journey on public transport Dec. 16. He also said it was the man's responsibility to protect the woman, and that he had failed in his duty. "The man has broken the faith of the woman," Mr. Sharma said. "If a man fails to protect the woman, or she has a single doubt about his failure to protect her, the woman will never go with that man."

Mr. Sharma, 56, a Supreme Court lawyer for the last two decades, says his clients are innocent. "This is a very complicated case, and the matter has not been solved yet," he said. Police have said they have DNA evidence linking all six to the crime.

Ram Singh, the bus driver and alleged ringleader, is struggling to communicate and fluctuating between crying and laughing, Mr. Sharma said. The lawyer, who has also been appointed to represent Mr. Singh's brother Mukesh and Akshay Kumar Singh, who is unrelated, plans to challenge police over their handling of the evidence.

Mr. Sharma's appointment comes after chaotic scenes Monday that forced the magistrate to order a private hearing over concerns for the safety of the accused. Mr. Sharma was one of two lawyers denounced by other advocates for volunteering to represent the defendants.

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