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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Three of the men accused of raping and murdering a 23-year-old woman in a case that has provoked widespread anger with the government and police will plead not guilty, their lawyer said on Wednesday, citing lapses in the police investigation.
The Delhi-based physiotherapy student died two weeks after being beaten and gang-raped on a moving bus in New Delhi, then thrown bleeding onto the street. Protests followed, along with a fierce public debate over the failure of authorities to stem violence against women.
Five men are facing various charges including murder, rape and abduction. A sixth suspect is being investigated separately to determine if he is below the age of 18, as he says he is.
Lawyer Manohar Lal Sharma, who is representing the bus driver, who is the main accused, his brother and another man, said he was keen for the case to go to trial so that the evidence police had presented could be tested in court.
"We will plead not guilty. We want this to go to trial," Sharma told Reuters.
"We are only hearing what the police are saying. This is manipulated evidence. It's all on the basis of hearsay and presumption."
It is not known if the other two of the five accused men have a lawyer.
Charges against the sixth member of the group have not been brought while police complete an inquiry to confirm his age. If he is found to be below 18 he will be tried in a juvenile court and if convicted will go to a correctional home, not a prison, to serve a maximum term of three years.
Sharma said the police had rushed through the investigation against the five men even when they were not ready with the key detail of the age of the sixth member of the group, who lured the woman and a male friend into the bus and, according to leaked accounts, was the most brutal in the attack.
"When you have not even established the age of this person, how can you go to court bringing the charges against the others, and say your investigations are complete," Sharma said.
"We all know how police investigations are carried out in India."
For days after their arrest, soon after the assault on the woman and a male companion, none of the men had a lawyer. Most members of the judiciary refused to represent them because of the outrage over the attack.
Police conducted extensive interrogations of the men in the absence of any lawyer and they say they have recorded confessions.
Legal experts had said a lack of representation for the suspects could give grounds for appeal if they were found guilty. Convictions in similar cases have often been overturned years later.
Sharma and another lawyer, V. K. Anand, offered to defend the five men when they appeared in a New Delhi court for the first time on Monday.
The case has shone a light on a widespread problem of violence against women but also the failure of the criminal justice system to bring the guilty to justice in a country where official statistics show a rape is reported every 20 minutes.
The trial will be conducted in a special fast-track process, set up after the attack, but some legal experts have warned that previous attempts to fast-track justice in India had, in some cases, led to imperfect convictions that were later challenged.
On Wednesday, the court where pre-trial hearings are taking place rejected an appeal against a court decision to try the men in camera. Namita Aggarwal, the presiding magistrate, said on Monday that the trial would be held behind closed doors because of the sensitivity of the case.
One of the suspects, Akshay Thakur, was due to appear in court on Wednesday when police are likely to seek his remand in custody. Police say they could bring a supplementary charge-sheet if the sixth member of the group is found to be an adult.
The woman lived for two weeks after the attack but died on December 29 in a Singapore hospital where she had been taken for treatment.
She was identified by a British newspaper on the weekend but Reuters has opted not to name her.
Indian law generally prohibits the identification of victims of sex crimes to protect their privacy in a country where the social stigma associated with rape can be devastating.
Additional reporting by Suchitra Mohanty; Editing by John Chalmers and Robert Birsel