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Verma for open trials as Delhi rape case opens behind purdah

The Justice JS Verma committee report on gender justice has said that rape trials need not be held completely in-camera.

The committee, which was set up soon after the horrific Delhi bus gangrape in which a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was brutalised, raped and thrown out of the bus along with her male friend, made this observation as part of its 631-page report: “The committee feels that, while to protect the testimony of the victim, the examination in chief and cross examination must be done in camera, we believe that unless there are compelling reasons, the remainder of the trial must be attempted to be conducted in open court because it is also important that women’s organisations, members of the media and members of the general public should also be able to observe the conduct of the trial. In any event, the victim must have a member of the women’s organisation inside to offer moral support.”

Why aren't the trials in open court? PTI

Why aren't the trials in open court? PTI

The Verma committee view comes even as the Delhi court trying the gangrape case has decided on an in-camera trial and gagged the media.

Additional Sessions Judge Yogesh Khanna, who started day-to-day hearings from today, said on Monday: “The trial shall, henceforth, be held by me in camera…It shall not be lawful for any person to publish or print any matter relating to the proceedings of this case except with the prior permission of this court. Such an order is even otherwise, necessary, considering the sensitivity of the matter; to conceal the identity of victim, to ensure safety of the complainant and the accused, to ensure a fair trial and also for the smooth functioning of the court,”

However, it is worth pointing out that the victim is dead, and her parents have already revealed her identity to various international journalists– who have also published her name. They have also indicated that they no longer felt the need to stay anonymous.

Disclosure of the identity of the victim has already led the Delhi police to register a case against Zee News under section 228A of the Indian Penal Code, which forbids disclosure of rape victims’ or witnesses’ identities. Zee interviewed the male friend of the gangrape victim and had even indicated his name – which could have served to identify the victim herself.

As Firstpost noted before, the section says “whoever prints or publishes the name or any matter which may make known the identity of any persons against whom an offence under section 376, section 376A, section 376B, section 376C or section 376D (all refer to rape) is alleged or found to have been committed (hereafter in this section referred to as the victim) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years and shall also be liable to fine.”

Section 228A also says that the section shall not apply if the victim is dead, or where the victim authorises such disclosure in writing, or if this is done with the order of the court that is hearing these proceedings.

As the rape victim is dead, there is no other reason beyond the letter of the law and the trial court’s gag order to keep her identity secret, especially since the family has no objections to it.

In the ongoing Delhi trial, The Hindu reports that advocate VK Anand, the lawyer of main accused bus driver Ram Singh, has sought an open trial.

Justice Verma’s report, while calling for open trials in order to demonstrate the fairness of the system, also says that rape trials needs sensitised judges. He says: “It is important to have properly sensitised judges to conduct such trials. We have noted disturbing recounts of how rape victims have been actually pulverised in-camera while suddenly facing a group of men in a hostile environment. The purpose of an in-camera proceeding is to create an environment for the victim, which is conducive to the conduct of a fair trial.

“Here, we are of the opinion that judges who actually try rape cases must be carefully chosen by the Chief Justice of the High Court and there must be a very conscientious allocation of work when rape cases are tried by such judges. We are also of the opinion that High Courts suo motu issue appropriate guidelines to ensure that there is a friendly and non-hostile environment in such in camera proceedings in respect of rape/sexual assault cases.”

As a former Chief Justice of the country, maybe Verma should whisper his thoughts to the trial judge.

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