New Delhi, India — A judge Monday formally charged three men with conspiracy and murder at the opening of their trial in the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The defendants pleaded innocent.

Defense lawyers immediately protested that the charges, leveled by trial Judge Mahesh Chandra, showed he had prejudged the case.

The public was barred from the trial being held in a heavily guarded room of New Delhi’s maximum security Tihar Prison, but reporters and relatives of the accused were allowed into the small, stuffy courtroom.

Gandhi was shot to death last Oct. 31 by three of her bodyguards as she left her home in New Delhi and walked to her office. She died on a hospital operating table of multiple gunshot wounds. Hours later, her son Rajiv was sworn into office as her successor.

The three blue turbaned defendants Satwant Singh, accused of firing the shots that killed Gandhi, and two alleged coconspirators, Balbir Singh and Kehar Singh sat in a box of bulletproof glass.

The charge sheet said the trio “on and before 31 October, 1984 entered at New Delhi into a criminal conspiracy and agreed to do and ask to be done an illegal act, to wit, the murder of Shrimati (Mrs.) Indira Gandhi.”

The charges said Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, a fellow security guard at Gandhi’s residence, “committed the murder of Shrimati Indira Gandhi. Then prime minister of India, by shooting her down with your service firearms.”

Beant Singh was killed by other guards after he surrendered.

Satwant Singh, who survived multiple gunshot wounds after he killed Mrs. Gandhi, was also charged with attempted murder and “causing grievous bullet injuries” to a bodyguard hit during the shooting.

If found guilty, the three defendants face sentences of death by hanging or life imprisonment.

Chandra said the defendants had a clear case to answer and ordered them to stand trial.

The full bearded Balbir Singh, who had been taking notes during the reading of the charges, rose to say he would be ready to plead guilty if someone would “satisfactorily explain what I have done wrong.”

His attorney, P.P. Grover, quickly quieted him and all three defendants entered innocent pleas to the charges.

But Grover objected that observations made by the judge showed he believed the defendants were guilty.

“You have made up your mind before the trial even begins,” Grover said.

There is no jury rial system in India and the verdict is to be delivered by the trial judge.

Pran Nath Lekhi, lawyer for Satwant Singh, charged prison officials had bugged the defendant’s cell during consultations and demanded that the makeshift courtroom be certified free of bugging devices. The Judge ordered prison officials to ensure no listening devices were in the room.

Article extracted from this publication >>  July 12, 1985