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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It appears that several men accused in a horrific rape and murder case in India will have legal representation. The December 16 gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi has generated worldwide outrage, and most of the lawyers in New Delhi have refused to take the case. Now, two attorneys have stepped forward to represent the men. Meanwhile, the case has raised questions about a need for reform in the legal system there, and we're joined now from New Delhi by Kiran Bedi to talk about that. Bedi is a former Indian police officer and activist who has worked on issues of crime prevention and justice worldwide. Welcome to the program.

KIRAN BEDI: Thank you.

CORNISH: Now, while this trial will be closed to the public, you're someone who obviously knows the justice system there very closely, and explain to us: How long will the trial proceed? What can the accused expect?

BEDI: Well, the evidence is like an open and a shut case. You have an eyewitness...

CORNISH: And the eyewitness is the gentleman who was there with the victim that night, who was also beaten.

BEDI: You have an eyewitness and you have a dying declaration. These are very (unintelligible) obviously you will have other supporting evidences. So it's an open and shut case when it comes to it. So it could go for the highest and the maximum penalty, which includes death penalty, because the murder charge has been added to this. Now, as far as how long it will take, it's gone to a fast-track court. So once the trial begins, it will be not more than a few months. But the accused has a right to go and appeal to the high court and Supreme Court and then for a mercy petition.

CORNISH: As we mentioned, this case has drawn worldwide attention. But for cases that don't, what are the conviction rates like for sex crimes in India?

BEDI: Exceedingly poor, and it also varies from state to state. Somewhere, like, for instance, Delhi, it could be more than 25 percent. For some, it is 6 percent. Some are delayed trials up to 12 years, 13 years. So it's varied from court to court, state to state.

CORNISH: What is the broader experience of women whose cases of sexual assault do make it to the Indian courts?

BEDI: The broader experiences of highly (unintelligible) trials, which is why the chief justice of the Supreme Court of India has directed all high courts to go in for a fast-track court. Now, India has fast-track courts, then a couple of years ago when, due to financial constraints, the government of India withdrew its financial support and the courts closed down. But now, with this direction by the Supreme Court, fast tracks will have to try rape cases and all other crimes against women in these courts.

CORNISH: After this trial has ended, what would you most like to see changed in how cases of sexual violence against women are addressed?

BEDI: I think that's been a silver lining. After the huge demonstrations by the youth of this country, the government of India was compelled to appoint a justice commission of inquiry to recommend improvements and changes that you require. I think it's been a blessing in disguise and a silver lining.

CORNISH: What are the kinds of things that are on the table for this commission? What are the ideas that have been floated around?

BEDI: Well, the terms of the commission are very, very clear. First, to provide for quicker trial and enhance punishment for criminals accused of committing sexual assault of extreme nature against them and - which will be historical.

CORNISH: You've been an activist on this issue for many years. Do you think that now is the time that there will actually be change?

BEDI: Yes. I do believe it's now or never. And if the government drags its feet on it, the youth is going to go back to the ground and demonstrate and agitate. And I don't think the government has any choice but to accept some of these radical reforms which will be proposed by the commission because they are heading for state elections and then they're heading for general elections next year. And if they want to return to power or get some votes, they cannot be hostile to these. They will have to address these issues.

CORNISH: Kiran Bedi, thank you so much for talking with me.

BEDI: My pleasure.

CORNISH: That's Kiran Bedi, an advocate for judicial reform in New Delhi. We were talking to her about the reaction to the gang rape and beatings that stirred protests there last month.

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