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Rape case off limits after court chaos
Lawyers fight, crush bars entry of accused

A policeman stands guard outside Saket district court in New Delhi on Monday. (AFP)

New Delhi, Jan. 7: Even the magisterial “inquiry” preceding the bus gang-rape trial will be held behind closed doors, a court decided today after overcrowding and chaos in the courtroom prevented the accused being brought in for two hours.

Worse, two groups of lawyers quarrelled loudly in the courtroom for an hour over whether the accused deserved to be defended, and nearly came to blows when one of them picked up a chair and attempted to throw it.

All this while, the police tried in vain to clear the jam-packed courtroom of spectators, journalists and lawyers to create room for the five accused to be led in and to ensure their security.

Around 2.15pm, metropolitan magistrate Namrita Aggarwal decided that enough was enough. “Keeping in view the situation which has arisen in this case, proceedings, including the inquiry and the trial, will be held in camera,” she announced.

“I am invoking Section 327(2) of the CrPC (criminal procedure code). It shall not be lawful to print or publish any matter in this case without permission from this court.”

The trial, like other rape trials, would anyway have been conducted in camera under Section 327(2) and the media curbs would have applied. But the preceding inquiry — a formality during which the magistrate decides if a case is made out against the accused — would have been open to the public but for today’s order.

The proceedings were to begin at 12.05pm but every inch of the courtroom, even the dock, was occupied and the entrance was completely blocked. The five chargesheeted accused, brought from Tihar jail around 10am, waited in the court lock-up.

As soon as the proceedings began, M.L. Sharma, a Supreme Court lawyer, volunteered to represent the accused saying their families had approached him.

But the magistrate rejected his application, saying he should visit the accused in jail to seek their consent — the court wasn’t the place to do so.

She also dismissed applications moved by two advocates to be appointed amicus curiae (friend of the court), saying none were required. She said the accused would receive legal aid (defence lawyers appointed by the government).

“Only if the accused want any individual (privately hired) lawyer shall any defence counsel appear before this court,” Aggarwal said.

She asked the crowd to make space for the accused but the police cited security concerns and said the five would be brought in only after the court was completely cleared. The magistrate asked the police to do that and retired to her chamber at 1pm.

As the police tried to persuade people to leave, an argument broke out among the lawyers when one group volunteered to defend the accused — despite what the magistrate had just said.

“You are publicity seekers and want to show your faces on TV,” alleged the opposite group — members of the Saket Bar Association whose 2,500 members have resolved not to represent the accused.

“The grapes are sour,” replied the rival lawyers, who had come from other courts. Then Aggarwal returned and asked everyone to clear out.

“An unprecedented situation has arisen, where the members of the bar and public persons even unconnected with the case have started converging in the courtroom.... The courtroom has become jam-packed with lots of disturbance created from different nooks and corners,” she said.

The accused were brought in around 2.45 and proceedings began in camera. The next hearing is on January 10. Once Aggarwal is satisfied, the case will be committed to the fast-track sessions court that will try the case day to day.

Some lawyers, however, challenged the magistrate’s order in the court of district judge R.K. Gauba, asking that the media curbs be lifted. The hearing is on January 9.

Cops face probe

The Union home ministry has ordered an inquiry into the charges of police callousness levelled by the rape victim’s male friend in a TV interview.

A joint secretary will probe whether police patrol cars wasted time after arriving instead of immediately helping the victims. A panel headed by retired Delhi High Court judge Usha Mehra too is investigating any lapses or negligence on the police’s part.