By Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Five men pleaded not guilty on Saturday to charges they raped and murdered an Indian trainee physiotherapist, in a case that led to a shake-up of laws against sexual crimes after protests about a rising number of attacks on women.
Police say the gang lured the 23-year-old woman onto a bus in New Delhi, where they repeatedly raped and assaulted her with a metal bar before throwing her bleeding onto a highway. She died of internal injuries two weeks after the December 16 attack.
A Reuters witness saw the men file into the court room with their faces covered, where lawyers in the case said they were read thirteen charges including murder, which carries a maximum penalty of death. They left after 15 minutes.
"After the judge read out the charges, the five pleaded not guilty and walked out" said A.P. Singh, a lawyer defending two of the accused, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Thakur.
Singh said the prosecution will call three witnesses to the next hearing on Tuesday, which is the formal start of the trial. The prosecution says it has strong evidence against the five men including blood stained clothing, DNA matches, mobile phone records, confessions and eye-witness statements.
Singh says Sharma was never on the bus and Thakur was hiding beneath a seat and never took part in the crime.
The other men - brothers Ram and Mukesh Singh and Pawan Kumar - are represented by two other lawyers. Mukesh Singh has replaced a lawyer who claimed his client was tortured in police custody, and no longer claims mistreatment.
A sixth person police say was part of the gang that attacked the woman and her friend is a juvenile and will be tried separately.
The brutality of the attack was shocking even to a nation inured to a rising wave of sexual crimes against women. Thousands of young protesters took to the streets in the weeks that followed. In response to the public outcry, on Friday the cabinet fast-tracked new, tougher penalties for sex crimes.
Under the new rules, due to be signed into law by the president in the coming days, gang rape that leads to death will be punishable by death while minimum penalties will be raised to 20 years for gang rape and rape of a minor. The laws must later be ratified by parliament.
(Additional reporting by Suchitra Mohanty; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)