A man on trial for the gang rape and fatal beating of a woman on board a New Delhi bus committed suicide in an Indian jail, according to police, but his lawyer and family allege he was killed.
Ram Singh, who was accused of driving the bus on which the 23-year-old student was raped by a group of six men in December, was under suicide watch at New Delhi's Tihar Jail when he hanged himself with his own clothes at about 5.30am, police officials said.
His death raises further questions about a criminal justice system already being criticised for failing to protect the nation's women.
Singh, 34, and his four fellow defendants were facing the death penalty if convicted of the attack, which horrified Indians and set off national protests. A sixth accused is being tried and held separately because he is a juvenile.
India's deputy home minister, RPN Singh, said an inquiry had been ordered into the suicide, according to the Press Trust of India.
Singh's family and lawyer alleged foul play over his death. "There were no circumstances which could have led to Ram Singh committing suicide. There was no mental stress. He was very happy," his lawyer, VK Anand, said. Lawyers for the defendants had previously accused police of beating confessions out of the men.
Singh's father, Mangelal Singh, said his son had been raped in prison by other inmates and had been repeatedly threatened by inmates and guards. Nevertheless, he said he visited his son four days ago and he appeared fine and gave no hint of the despair that could drive him to take his own life.
Singh also had a badly injured hand and would have been unable to orchestrate a suicide, his father said, speaking from outside his small home in a New Delhi slum. "Somebody has killed him," he said, insisting he would push for a top-level investigation into the death. Mangelal Singh said he feared for the safety of another son who is also on trial in the rape case. The defendants were being housed in separate buildings on the jail grounds and were all under suicide watch, a jail official said. Indian jails have a reputation for overcrowding, poor management and brutal treatment of inmates.
The rape victim and a male friend were attacked on December 16 after boarding the bus as they tried to return home after watching a film, police said. Six men, the only occupants of the private bus, beat the man with a metal bar, raped the woman and used the bar to inflict massive internal injuries to her, police said. The victims were then dumped naked on the roadside, and the woman died from her injuries two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.
The brutal attack set off nationwide protests about India's treatment of women and spurred the government to hurry through a new package of laws to protect them.