Ram Singh, a suspect in the notorious rape and murder of a female student in India, has been found dead in prison, his lawyer has confirmed.
Police say Ram Singh hanged himself in Delhi’s Tihar jail, but defence lawyers and his family suspect he was murdered.
Ram Singh, 33, was one of five men being held in the rape and murder case. They all deny the charges.
The attack on the student on a bus in December outraged India and triggered a debate about the treatment of women.
A sixth suspect is being tried by a juvenile court.
Ram Singh’s death comes as a huge embarrassment for the authorities who are already under enormous pressure over the case.
Tihar jail spokesman Sunil Gupta said Ram Singh appeared to have hanged himself with an improvised rope made from a blanket at about 05:00 local time on Monday.
He said an inquiry had been ordered and Ram Singh’s body would be taken for a post mortem examination later on Monday.
Sunil Gupta denied Indian media reports that Ram Singh had been on suicide watch, and said three people were sharing his prison cell.
Police say Ram Singh hanged himself in Delhi’s Tihar jail, but defence lawyers and his family suspect he was murdered
Ram Singh’s lawyer, VK Anand, said he was informed about his client’s death by police.
“This is shocking news. There were no circumstances to suggest that he would commit suicide. He was happy with the trial, it was going on smoothly,” VK Anand said.
Ram Singh’s father, Mangelal Singh said his son had a badly injured hand and could not have hanged himself.
He also said his son had been raped in prison by other inmates and repeatedly threatened by prisoners and guards.
“My son has not committed suicide,” he said.
Ram Singh and the four other adult defendants – his brother Mukesh, Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Thakur – have been on trial in a fast-track court.
The case was due to resume on Monday. Reporting restrictions mean few details of the trial have been made public.
They face 13 charges, including murder, gang-rape, kidnapping and destruction of evidence. If found guilty they could face the death penalty.
The maximum sentence the juvenile would face if convicted would be three years in a reform facility.
The 23-year-old rape victim, who was not named for legal reasons, was with a male friend when she was attacked on a bus and thrown from the vehicle.
She died in a Singapore hospital on 29 December from massive internal injuries.
Ram Singh was accused of being the driver of the bus.
The case provoked nationwide protests and demands for tougher penalties for rapists, as well as greater protection for women.
Tihar prison, which authorities say is the largest in Asia, is India’s most high-security prison.
The 55-year-old jail houses more than 12,000 inmates although it has an official capacity of about 6,000.
The complex includes nine separate prison facilities.
Media reports quoting the chief of Tihar prison Vimla Mehra say there were 18 deaths in the jail last year, of which two were cases of suicide.
A Delhi court in India is beginning to hear evidence from witnesses in the case of the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in December.
Five accused men are attending the special fast-track court. They deny charges of rape, murder and abduction.
If convicted, they could face the death penalty. A sixth suspect is to be tried by a juvenile court.
The assault outraged India and sparked a debate about treatment of women.
The first of 80 witnesses to be produced by the prosecution takes the stand in the Saket District Court on Tuesday.
All reporting of proceedings inside the courtroom has been banned and the judge has ordered lawyers not to speak to reporters.
A key witness in the case will be the victim’s male friend who was with her when she was attacked on a bus and thrown from the vehicle.
A Delhi court in India is beginning to hear evidence from witnesses in the case of the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in December
The student died in a Singapore hospital on 29 December from her internal injuries.
She and her 28-year-old companion cannot be named for legal reasons. He arrived at the courthouse in a wheelchair, still unable to walk properly due to injuries suffered in the attack.
His father, who accompanied him into the court complex, told Agence France-Presse news agency: “My son will go to any lengths to ensure that the guilty are punished.”
The bus believed to have been used in the attack was driven into the court complex on Tuesday.
The five defendants facing trial on Tuesday are Ram Singh and his brother Mukesh, Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Thakur.
They face 13 charges, including murder, gang-rape, kidnapping and destruction of evidence.
Prosecutors say they have extensive forensic evidence, supported by the suspects’ mobile-phone records and the testimony of the dying woman and her companion.
Defence lawyers are expected to argue that the forensic evidence has been fabricated and that the rush to prosecute has led to an unsafe trial.
The trial is being closely followed in India, where the case has led to massive protests about the treatment of women and how the police and legal system tackle sex crimes.
On Sunday, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee signed a new anti-rape law which has increased the minimum sentence for those convicted of gang-rape and allows for the death penalty to be used in extreme cases.
But women’s groups have come out against the new law, saying that marital rape and sexual assaults by Indian security forces in conflict zones should have been included.
An Indian commission set up to suggest reforms to country’s rape laws after last month’s Delhi gang rape of a student has called for faster trials.
The panel, led by former chief justice JS Verma, also called for longer sentences but not the death penalty.
India’s law minister said the report would get “government attention” soon.
The brutal assault on the 23-year-old student in Delhi in December shocked India and sparked a debate about the treatment of women.
Justice JS Verma said his three-member commission had received 80,000 responses from India and abroad on how to reform rape laws.
Among the recommendations of the report, submitted to the home ministry on Wednesday, were:
- broadening of the definition of what constituted sexual assault
- cases to be tried in specially designated courts, preferably by women judges
- quicker trials and faster processing of appeals in cases of crimes against women
- more accountability for the police
- better implementation of laws and the need for a change in the mindset of law-enforcers
- strong action against those found guilty of trafficking and against security forces convicted of sexual assault in conflict zones.
- uniform national protocol for the treatment and medical examination of rape survivors
The panel also recommended that those found guilty of rape leading to death spend the rest of their life in prison, but it stopped short of calling for the death penalty, something which many in India had pushed for.
“What is needed to enforce laws is the sensitivity on the part of those who implement it,” he told a news conference after submitting the report to the home ministry in Delhi.
“The state’s role is not just punishing criminals but also to prevent crimes against women,” he said.
An Indian commission set up to suggest reforms to country’s rape laws after last month’s Delhi gang rape of a student has called for faster trials
Justice JS Verma said the authorities had failed in their duties to the public.
He said that despite the huge number of responses to the commission’s request for ideas, not a single Indian state police chief had sent recommendations.
The head of the panel also praised young people for going into the streets to protest about the status quo.
“Youth has taught us what we, the older generation, were not aware of. I was struck by the peaceful manner in which the protests were carried out… the youth rose to the occasion,” he said.
Justice Leila Seth, another member of the commission, said police “don’t take complaints of rape victims seriously”.
“There is institutional bias against the weaker sections of society,” she said.
The Verma committee also looked at marital rapes and physical, sexual and psychological violence in the family.
Justice JS Verma said he hoped that the report would be taken seriously by the government.
The student raped in December, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was attacked after boarding a bus in south Delhi with a male friend.
Police said the assailants beat both of them, and then raped the woman. She suffered massive internal injuries and died nearly two weeks later.
The incident led to nationwide protests against the treatment of women in India. Campaigners called for tougher rape laws and reforms to the police, who have been accused of often failing to file charges against attackers.
Earlier this week, the trial of five men held for the crime began at a specially convened fast-track court.
If convicted, the men could face the death penalty. A sixth suspect, who is thought to be 17, is expected to be tried by a juvenile court.
The government has said it will bring in stronger sexual assault laws and has established several committees to recommend changes.
It has also promised to fast-track future rape cases. Legal proceedings in India sometimes involve years of delays.
There are believed to be about 95,000 rape cases pending nationwide, according to Ranjana Kumari, a women’s activist.