One of the defendants in the fatal gang rape of
a 23-year-old student in India was found dead in prison Monday, in a
dramatic turn in the case that triggered an international outcry.
Prison spokesman Sunil Gupta said Ram Singh, 35, hanged himself after making a noose with a blanket. But Singh's father, Mange Lal Singh, and defence lawyers alleged that he was murdered.
Authorities have promised an investigation and autopsy report.
"He used the ceiling grill and stood on a bucket to hang himself," Gupta said, adding that the body had no marks suggesting a struggle or use of a weapon.
Local media said Singh had been kept on suicide watch because he showed signs of depression.
Singh reportedly shared a cell with three other inmates.
His father said he had an injured hand and would have been unable to commit suicide.
"My son has not committed suicide," Mange Lal Singh said. "Somebody has killed him. I used to meet him at court and he told me he was sodomized and beaten by inmates."
Singh's lawyer said he had complained of physical and sexual abuse by inmates and jail authorities during a court hearing in January.
"This is a well-planned conspiracy," VK Anand said. "There was no mental stress. He was happy. There are no circumstances to suggest he could have taken such an extreme step."
Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde conceded that authorities had failed to provide proper security.
"I agree, its a major (security) lapse, but the inquiry is being done," Shinde said.
Ram Singh was the driver of the bus in which the December 16 assault took place and one of the victim's six accused assailants. The attack in the Indian capital sparked mass protests about the treatment of women in India.
The woman died in hospital two weeks after the assault.
Singh was facing charges of murder, gang rape, abduction, destruction of evidence and criminal conspiracy in a special court that began February 5.
His brother Mukesh, gym instructor Vinay Sharma, bus cleaner Akshay Thakur and fruit seller Pawan Gupta are the other suspects on trial. A sixth suspect is being tried by a juvenile court.
Relatives of the rape victim said Singh "might have hanged himself in shame."
"I'm not very thrilled with the news that he killed himself because I wanted him to be hanged ... publicly," the woman's brother told the Times of India. "Him dying on his own terms seems unfair. But, well, one is down. Hopefully the rest will wait for their death sentences."
Singh's death sparked protests from other defence lawyers, who questioned how a high-profile prisoner could have taken his life in Tihar Jail, the most modern maximum security prison in India.
"This is totally murder. A number of jail officials, politicians and other administrative officials are involved in this matter," said AP Singh, lawyer for two of the defendants. "How could a prisoner hang himself inside. Is the security there so weak?"
Indian prisons are overcrowded and lack of security often sees rampant abuses and assaults among prison inmates. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 68 inmates in India died from suicide and eight were murdered by fellow inmates in 2011.
Tihar Jail currently holds 12,500 prisoners, more than twice its official capacity of 6,250.
At a trial hearing Monday afternoon, the other defendants sought increased security, saying they feared for their lives.
"My client is so traumatized at the treatment meted to him in jail that he cried before the judge and told him that you better get me shot dead but don't send me back to jail. They want to die but don't want to go back to jail," Singh said.
Prominent lawyer KTS Tulsi told broadcaster NDTV the suicide would have no impact on the trial, but it raised questions about how the society treats suspects who have not been convicted.
"It's so unfortunate that the media goes on to presume that they are guilty and goes on to condemn them, demonize them to an extent that it makes the life of these people not worth living," he said.
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