NEW DELHI (Reuters) - In a grubby room, one wall lined with legal tomes, a father and his son leaf through thick case files in preparation for the trial of their lives - defending the main accused in a gang-rape that outraged India and caused shock waves around the world.
The small New Delhi legal firm, with its headquarters in a cramped office above a local bank, has been thrust into the international spotlight after being appointed to represent bus driver Ram Singh.
Singh is accused of leading a gang that raped and severely injured a 23-year-old student in a moving Delhi bus, leading eventually to her death.
A local lawyers association said its members had agreed not to take up the case for the accused in view of the nature of the crime and the public outrage it has caused.
Vibhor Anand, a 24-year-old law student, saw things differently and convinced his father to seize the opportunity.
“It was my idea to go for the case,” Anand said, leaning forward in his chair. It was important the defendants were represented, however terrible the crime, he said.
So V.K. Anand, 57, headed down to the pre-trial court in another part of town to offer his services. He was shouted down when he stood up in the tightly packed court room and announced his desire to defend the main accused. One woman lawyer prodded him hard in anger.
“They did not allow me to make an appearance in the court itself, they created such a problem for me, but ultimately I said it is the right of the accused person,” he said.
Despite the public hostility to anyone defending the accused, in the end the Anands had competition for Singh’s case, with an outspoken Supreme Court lawyer, M.L. Sharma also coming forward and seeking to represent him. Eventually, Sharma was hired by Singh’s brother Mukesh, another of the accused.
Another lawyer is representing two other accused while it is not yet clear who exactly is representing the fifth man.
All of the accused are friends who, according to the police charge sheet against them, went out on a joy ride on December 16, looking for women.
The five have been charged with multiple offences including murder, attempt to murder, gang-rape, kidnapping, criminal conspiracy, dacoity and unnatural sexual offences. They face the death penalty, if convicted.
The five accused are due back in court on Monday where police will seek to extend their remand in custody. The court which is listening to pre-trial hearings is also expected to commit the case to a fast track which will then begin the trial. The fast track court is expected to reach a verdict within three months.
Charges against a sixth member of the group have not been brought while police complete an inquiry to confirm his age. He has said he is 17, and under Indian law, a juvenile court has to try anyone below 18.
According to the police chargesheet seen by Reuters the men lured the young woman and a male friend into the bus, offering a ride home, and then attacked the man first, before taking the woman to the rear of the bus and raping her by turns.
The men also assaulted the woman with iron rods and the pair were thrown off the bus, left on a highway, police said. Ram Singh, the driver of the bus led the assault on the woman, according to the police chargesheet.
LAWYER WANTS JUSTICE FOR ALL
Anand senior said while the crime was heinous, the defendants were entitled to a fair trial.
“Just as the victim must get justice, the accused should also get justice. You cannot hang a person just because the public wants them hanged,” said the moustached and balding Anand as his son fielded calls from the world media.
Father and son seemed to be enjoying the attention, as they finished each other’s sentences and seemed to speak almost as one voice during a conversation with Reuters.
Anand said he has been a defence lawyer in both criminal and civil cases for nearly three decades, and together with his son also ran a charity that offers free 24-hour legal advice.
They said they would base their defence on lapses in the police investigation, and discrepancies in witness statements.
“From the investigation stage, the accused are entitled to legal aid,” Anand senior said. “The court is under obligation to provide legal aid counsel in case they have not engaged any lawyer.
“This is where they went wrong, no legal aid was assigned to those people themselves,” he said.
RENOWNED FOR CHALLENGING AUTHORITIES
Sharma, the wiry lawyer for Mukesh Singh, the main accused’s brother, said he had to virtually plead with the pre-trial court to allow him to speak to his client when he was brought before the court.
He was jostled, somebody shouted out he was a lawyer desperately seeking attention and that he should be thrown out of the room. But he said he was not going to give up, because his fight was not just about defending the accused, but also to expose the police and the criminal justice system.
“We all know how the police investigation system works in India. They will pick anyone from the street and make him the sacrificial lamb,” the 56-year-old lawyer said in a conversation in the gardens of India’s Supreme Court where he is a frequent litigant on public matters.
He said the police case was built on confessions from the men and that he found it strange that the statements of each of the five men given in the chargesheet were identical. “They are ditto the same. It’s like somebody is dictating it.”
He then charged that his client Mukesh told him he’d been sexually assaulted by inmates at Tihar jail since he was brought there from police custody, including with a rod.
Police have denied the allegation.
Sharma has had a history of taking on the higher judiciary. Among the cases he has argued is a public interest litigation inquiring into the assets of a former Supreme Court chief justice and another against a sitting chief justice of the top court, both of which were thrown out.
Not only was his case against the chief justice S.H.J. Kapadia arguing that there was a conflict of interest in a high-profile tax dispute involving Britain-based Vodaphone Group VOD.L rejected, he was fined 50,000 rupees for wasting the time of the court.
A Supreme Court lawyer working on behalf of the government said Sharma was “notorious” for being an excessive litigant. Under Indian law any citizen can file a public interest litigation and the latest Sharma is fighting is one against a government decision to allow foreign direct investment in retail.
“My fight is against corruption whether in government or judiciary,” said Sharma. “I can see the same thing happening in this case. There is public pressure, the politicians are pressing the police. The evidence will not be evaluated, innocent people will be fixed.”
Lawyer A.P. Singh, who will argue the case for Vinay Sharma, a gym assistant, and Akshay Thakur, a bus cleaner, recalled that when he went to prison to meet his client, the accused begged him to save him.
“He caught hold of my feet. He started crying,” Singh said.
Additional reporting by Suchitra Mohanty; Editing by Jeremy Laurence
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