Documents presented in a hearing today indicate that a suspect in the fatal gang rape of a young woman on a New Delhi bus in December was a juvenile at the time of the attack, a court official present at the hearing said.
Two principals from the suspect's elementary school showed paperwork indicating that the suspect was a juvenile at the time of the attack, which would make him ineligible for the death penalty, said the official, who was at the hearing and spoke on condition of anonymity because of a gag order.
A judge is expected to rule on the suspect's age in a Jan. 28 hearing, the official said, adding that the suspect did not appear in court Tuesday.
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 lead to his execution.
Five other men also have been charged in the case, which has put an international spotlight on sexual abuse against women in India.
One of the five now says he is also a minor, although no other details were immediately provided.
Police say the 23-year-old victim and a male friend boarded the bus on Dec. 16 after seeing 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.
Age difficult to prove in India
In the case of the first suspect who claims he's a minor, figuring out his age could be complicated.
He is believed to lack a birth certificate, a common occurrence in India, where many people are born at home.
In such cases, school records are often used as proof of age or identity.
The principal of the suspect's former elementary school, who testified at the hearing, said earlier that the suspect quit school in the third grade, about eight years ago.
He declined to provide details on the school's records on the young man, but said few people from the school, in a rural, poverty-battered part of Uttar Pradesh state, have proof of their age.
"None of these people have documents," said Shishu Pal Singh.
"If the parents say he's six years old [when he is first brought to school], we list him as 6 years old.
If he looks older, we may say he is 7."
Manohar Lal Sharma, the lawyer for the suspect who claims he is a minor, said at a court hearing Monday that his client is under 18, and that police documents indicating he is 26 had been "manipulated."
"If you could just see his face, he is only a child," Sharma said.
Medical tests may indicate age
There are also medical tests that can indicate a person's general age, though it's unclear if the technology would be able to give a precise age.
While sexual violence is believed to be a major problem across India, the issue has seldom been 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 drawn 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.
Late Monday, more than 150 people gathered outside a school in the western state of Goa to protest the rape of a Grade 2 student.
An earlier version of this story displayed a photo of police standing next to six suspects wearing black hoods. Those men are accused in a separate group rape in Gurdaspur in Punjab province, not the Dec. 16 attack in New Delhi.Sep 12, 2013 2:25 AM ET