By Annie Banerji and Suchitra Mohanty
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - An Indian teenager went on trial on Wednesday charged with taking part in the gang rape and murder of a young physiotherapist, a case which has sparked soul-searching about whether the country is too soft on young offenders.
Police say the juvenile and five men lured the 23-year-old woman and her male friend on to a New Delhi bus where they repeatedly raped her and beat them both before tossing them on to a road.
The woman died of internal injuries in Singapore two weeks after the December 16 attack in a case that sparked violent protests and turned a global spotlight on the treatment of women in India.
The 17-year-old defendant, who cannot be named under Indian law, has been charged with the same 13 offences as his co-accused, including rape, murder and robbery, but is being tried separately by the juvenile court. He pleaded not guilty to all charges last week.
If found guilty, he faces a maximum penalty of three years in juvenile detention, while his adult co-accused, whose trial began last month, could face the death penalty.
That has infuriated many Indians, including some police and political leaders, who have called for tougher punishments for minors and lowering the age at which people can be tried as adults to 16 from 18.
"The boy appeared in court and heard the proceedings with a quiet and calm composure," a lawyer at Delhi's Juvenile Justice Board, which comprises a magistrate and two others, said.
The next hearing was set for March 15.
The lawyer, who asked not to be identified because of legal restrictions on reporting cases involving minors, said the trial was likely to last two to three months. The victim also cannot be named.
A magistrate who recorded the rape victim's statement while she was in hospital appeared in court as a prosecution witness, the lawyer said.
The government has ruled out lowering the age at which a defendant can be tried as an adult. India's juvenile justice laws have evolved over the past decade and are now in line with U.N. norms focused on humane treatment of minors.
The teenager is being held at a juvenile detention unit reserved for violent offenders, where he is kept in isolation for his own safety.
The other accused are being tried in a special fast-track court opposite the shopping mall where the victim and her friend went to watch the film "Life of Pi" before boarding the bus.
(Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Nick Macfie)