India gang rape suspect who says he's 17 to appear in court to confirm age, determine eligibility for death penalty

Indian policemen stand with six men, face covered in black sheet, suspected in a gang rape of a bus passenger in Punjab state, India, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013. One of those men, Ram Singh, committed suicide in jail, a police official said. AP Photo/Prabhjot Gill

NEW DELHI A suspect in the December gang rape and killing of a young woman on a New Delhi bus was to appear Tuesday at a hearing intended to determine whether he is a juvenile and therefore ineligible for the death penalty, according to defense lawyers in the case.

The suspect, who is not being identified by The Associated Press because he says he is 17, would face three years in a reform facility if convicted as a juvenile. A conviction as an adult could bring the death penalty.

The hearing is expected to begin Tuesday afternoon, defense lawyers said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because a magistrate has issued a strict gag order restricting the release of information about the case.

Five men also have been charged in the case, though one of them now says he is also a minor.

Police say the 23-year-old woman and a male friend boarded the bus on Dec. 16 after an evening movie. But the bus turned out to be off-duty and was being driven by a group of friends who, police say, attacked the couple and then took turns raping the woman. They also penetrated her repeatedly with a metal bar, causing massive internal injuries. The two were eventually dumped on the roadside. The woman died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.

While sexual violence is believed to be a major problem across India, the issue is seldom raised in a country where women are still often regarded as second-class citizens. Victims are often blamed for sexual attacks — by their families or authorities — and the shame of rape keeps many women from reporting such attacks at all.

The bus rape, though, has brought a spotlight onto the issue, setting off protests and intense media attention. Rapes have become front-page news nearly every day across the country, with demands that police do more to protect women, and that the courts treat sexual violence seriously.

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