NEW DELHI -- Five men accused of raping a university student for hours on a bus as it drove through India's capital were charged with murder, rape and other crimes that could bring them the death penalty.
The attack on the 23-year-old woman, who died of severe internal injuries over the weekend, provoked a fierce debate across India about the routine mistreatment of females and triggered daily protests demanding action.
There have been signs of change since the attack. Rapes, often ignored, have become front-page news, politicians have called for tougher laws, including the death penalty and chemical castration for rapists, and the government is examining wide-scale reforms in the criminal justice system's handling of sexual assaults. Activists say the tragedy could mark a turning point for women's rights.
In a nation where court cases often linger for years, the government set up a special fast-track court Wednesday to deal with crimes against woman, and that is where the charges against the five men were filed Thursday evening. The government said it planned to open four more such courts in the city.
Prosecutor Rajiv Mohan filed rape, tampering with evidence, kidnapping, murder and other charges against the men. The charge sheet was not made public, and he requested a closed trial. A hearing was set for Saturday.
The men charged were Ram Singh, the bus driver; his brother Mukesh Singh, who cleans buses for the same company; Pavan Gupta, a fruit vendor; Akshay Singh, a bus washer; and Vinay Sharma, a fitness trainer. They did not appear in court. Authorities have said they would push for the death penalty for the men.
The victim's father said he supported the death penalty. "The toughest and the harshest punishment should be given," he said, adding that he thought a new law should be named after his daughter.
A sixth suspect, listed as a 17-year-old, was expected to be tried in a juvenile court, where the maximum term would be three years in a reform facility. Police also detained the bus owner on charges that he used false documents to obtain permits to run the private bus service.
The Bar Association said its lawyers would not defend the suspects because of the nature of the crime, but the court was expected to appoint attorneys to defend them.
The woman was attacked Dec. 16 after boarding the bus with a male companion after watching an evening showing of the movie "Life of Pi" at an upscale mall. The vehicle was a charter bus that illegally picked up the two passengers, authorities said.
The pair were attacked for hours as the bus drove through the city, even passing through police checkpoints during the assault. They were eventually dumped naked on the side of the road. The woman, whose name was not released, was assaulted with an iron bar and suffered severe internal injuries that eventually proved fatal.
The attack caused outrage across India, where women are routinely subjected to everything from catcalls to assaults. Many fear being outside at night.
In a sign that attitudes might be changing -- and that even powerful men are being held accountable -- police in the northeastern state of Assam arrested a leader of the ruling Congress party Thursday on accusations that he raped a woman in a village in the early-morning hours.
Footage on Indian television showed the extraordinary scene of local women surrounding the man, ripping off his shirt and repeatedly slapping his face.
Police said the man, Bikram Singh Brahma, was visiting the village of Santipur on the Bhutan border when he entered a woman's house and raped her at 2 a.m. Hearing her screams, villagers ran to the home and captured the man, said G.P. Singh, a local police officer. "We are taking this issue very seriously," he said.