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India investigates rape suspect's hanging death

| Monday, March 11, 2013, 10:00 p.m.

NEW DELHI — Responding to widespread shock and public criticism, India's government on Monday ordered an investigation into the prison death of one of the men charged with the gang rape of a young student in a moving bus last year, a horrific incident that sparked a national uproar over women's safety.

A prison guard found Ram Singh, the bus driver and alleged leader of the gang that raped and fatally wounded the young woman, hanging from the ceiling of his cell at dawn.

Although many anti-rape protesters had demanded that the accused men be sentenced to death, and Indians were expecting the harshest verdict from the court, Singh's hanging came as a jolt.

Singh's lawyer charged foul play, Singh's father said it was murder, and Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde called it “a major security lapse.” Anti-rape protesters questioned the security inside India's fortress-like Tihar Jail, the nation's largest such facility.

Hours after the news of the prison death, another defendant in the case pleaded, with folded hands, with the judge in a city court: “Shoot me, but don't send me back to jail,” according to his lawyer, A.P. Singh.

What flummoxed Indians was how one of the country's most closely watched prisoners might have managed to hoodwink not only guards but also his cellmates sleeping nearby.

“Gymnastic dexterity, phantom-like stealth? An unbelievable suicide. Can the mysterious death of Delhi gang-rape prime accused be taken at face value?” asked the Times Now news channel in a prime-time debate.

Prison officials said the 33-year old Ram Singh had chatted with his three cellmates late into the night. But after they fell asleep, he hanged himself from a grill on the ceiling by tying his clothes and pieces of blanket together to make a rope, authorities said.

Singh and the other accused men had been kept under a strict suicide watch in the prison. But there was no surveillance camera inside Singh's cell, and a night patrol guard had last seen him at 2.30 a.m. during his round, a prison official told reporters.

“This suspicious custodial death or killing raises serious questions about the state of our legal system and the terrible state of our jails,” said Kavita Krishnan, a leader of the anti-rape demonstrations.

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