In India, Men Accused of Deadly Rape Formally Charged

Five men accused of the brutal rape and murder of a woman student in New Delhi were charged today. The attack in December launched an international outcry and led to nationwide protests. NPR's Julie McCarthy joins host Laura Sullivan from the Indian capital with the latest.

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LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

Six weeks ago, the brutal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi generated an international outcry. The victim was a 23-year-old student who subsequently died from injuries she sustained in that attack. Today, the five men accused of the crime pleaded not guilty. The accused face an array of charges, including murder, gang rape, criminal conspiracy and kidnapping.

NPR's Julie McCarthy was at the courthouse and joins us, now, from New Delhi. Julie, so the defendants pleaded not guilty. What else happened in court today?

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Well, the court proceedings, Laura, are closed to media and the public but nonetheless this was a significant day in that the charges against the five men were formally framed by the court, and that's what they were pleading to. Police and defense lawyers said that the allegations that were originally, and initially, brought by the public prosecutor all remain; that each of those five men now face all the original charges, the most serious of which - murder - carries the death penalty.

So there was no whittling down of charges. The court has not pre-empted anything. It's letting the trial take its course, but charges are a long way from a conviction or a verdict. And I think this case will likely see many twists and turns before it's over.

SULLIVAN: This case has created an international uproar. But what has happened inside India since this episode became the subject of protest and public anger? Have there been any changes, perhaps, in any of the laws?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, in fact, just this week - in fact, yesterday, this case has produced its first major attempt to reform the criminal code. The cabinet on Friday approved the death penalty in grievous cases of sexual assault, and a minimum punishment of 20 years for gang rape - so tougher sentences. The idea is to treat rape that results in the death of the victim, or that causes a permanent vegetative state - to treat it as a crime belonging to the rarest of the rare. That's a category for which a judge could impose the death sentence.

That's a phrase you hear a lot here: the rarest of the rare. That benchmark would seem to be very high. What we've learned from this incident is that rape is not an isolated event here.

SULLIVAN: Does this mean that the death penalty for grievous cases of rape is now law, in India? Can the cabinet make those kind of sweeping changes?

MCCARTHY: It's not law yet. In fact, it was approved in the form of an ordinance, which the president has to sign. It will then be debated by parliament. But when it is signed, it will take effect. And the critics of this ordinance move worry that it effectively sidesteps these other important reforms. For example, this ordinance does not bar anyone charged with a sexual offense from seeking office. It doesn't follow recommendations of the government's own panel that said when the armed forces are accused of sexual violence, they should be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law.

The cabinet didn't follow that lead, but it did accept sexual assault will have a broader definition, and that acid attacks and stalking should be specific offenses themselves.

SULLIVAN: NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi. Julie, thank you.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

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