NEW DELHI — A magistrate on Monday banned reporting on the New Delhi trial of a gang rape case that has attracted worldwide attention, reacting to a chaotic courtroom filled with members of the news media and a large number of female lawyers who said no one should represent the accused.
“The courtroom is jam-packed, with a lot of disturbance from different nooks and corners,” said Metropolitan Magistrate Namrita Aggarwal, in New Delhi’s Saket district. “It has become completely impossible to carry out proceedings in this manner.”
Calling the case an “unprecedented situation,” the magistrate invoked an occasionally used criminal statute that makes it illegal for anyone unconnected to a case to be in the courtroom during trial and makes it “unlawful for any person to print or publish’’ anything about the case without court permission.
The statute makes it illegal for the news media to report on what happens in the courtroom, even if they receive that information from someone present. Generally in such situations, the court will issue an official statement at the end of each day.
The chaos in the courtroom came before five of the six accused in the Dec. 16 gang rape case appeared in court on Monday.
The case, and the punishment the men may receive, is being closely watched by lawyers, activists, and citizens across India and beyond as a test of the government’s commitment to deliver justice to victims of sexual assault and violence.
Gang rapes have become common in India, and some surveys suggest the country has one of the highest rates of sexual violence.
The authorities have charged the men with murder, rape, and other crimes that could bring the death penalty to the five adults, the Associated Press reported. The sixth, who is 17 years old, is expected to be tried in a juvenile court, where the maximum sentence would be three years.
On Sunday, two of the defendants offered to become informers against the others, presumably in exchange for leniency, according to reporters present at the hearing. The chief prosecutor, Rajiv Mohan, declined to comment.
After the courtroom was cleared on Monday, the five men were brought in from a cell in the court complex, surrounded by police officers. They emerged from the court with their faces hidden behind woolen caps.
The suspects are accused of beating and raping a 23-year-old physiotherapy student repeatedly with an iron rod. She died of her injuries two weeks later.
The magistrate scheduled another pretrial hearing on Thursday that is expected to result in the case being sent to a special court, which could bring the case to trial in days.
Indian courts are considered very slow, with some cases dragging on for decades. Since the Dec. 16 attack, New Delhi has set up five fast-track courts to handle sexual assault cases.
The case has stirred strong emotions in India’s legal community. The 13,000-member Saket Bar Association, which represents lawyers in the district where the trial is being held, has vowed not to represent the defendants because of the nature of the crime.
“It is a heinous crime,” said Rajpal Kasana, president of the bar association. “There was a good response from the members, and they will not represent.”
But he also said that “somebody has to represent them,” and that if the defendants do not retain private lawyers, the court will appoint them counsel recruited from Legal Aid.
Dozens of female lawyers appeared in the court on Monday, many of them vocally objecting to the defendants’ right to any representation. Some scuffled with lawyers who volunteered to represent them.
The volunteers included Manohar Lal Sharma, who practices in the Supreme Court and has filed numerous public interest lawsuits against top public figures.
“I am only concerned with the judicial system,” Sharma said. “They should get a free and fair trial.”
Lawyers outside the courthouse on Monday said they planned to try to overturn the ban on reporting proceedings.