An Indian lawyer defending three of the men charged with rape and murder in connection with a brutal attack on a 23-year-old woman on a New Delhi bus says the victims are to blame for what happened.

"Until today, I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady," Manohar Lal Sharma told Bloomberg in an interview from India's capital. "Even an underworld don would not like to touch a girl with respect."

He said the two victims should not have been travelling on public transit late in the evening, and the man who was beaten had failed to shield his female companion from harm.

"The man has broken the faith of the woman," Sharma told the news service. "If a man fails to protect the woman, or she has a single doubt about his failure to protect her, the woman will never go with that man."

The attack has forced India to confront the reality that sexually assaulted women are often blamed for the crime, forced to keep quiet and discouraged from going to authorities for fear of exposing their families to ridicule. Police often refuse to accept complaints from rape victims, and the rare prosecutions that reach courts can drag on for years.

Authorities have charged five men with murder, rape and other crimes in the New Delhi attack that could bring them the death penalty. A sixth suspect, who is 17 years old, is expected to be tried in a juvenile court, where the maximum sentence would be three years in a reform facility.

DNA evidence

Prosecutor Rajiv Mohan said last week that a DNA test confirmed that the blood of the victim matched blood stains found on the clothes of all the accused.

Sharma said his three clients intend to plead not guilty, telling Reuters that the case against them is based on "manipulated evidence."

The crime has led to calls for tougher rape laws and reforms of a police culture. India's top law enforcement official has said the country needs to crack down on crimes against women.

The female victim was a medical student who worked a night job at a local call centre "helping Canadians with their mortgage issues," the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. CBC News has been unable to confirm the woman's employment details.

Her companion recounted in a television interview last week how the pair was attacked for 2½ hours on a New Delhi bus before being thrown to the side of the road, where passersby ignored them and police debated jurisdiction issues before helping them.

The student died at a Singapore hospital weeks after the Dec. 16 attack.

Indian law prohibits the disclosure of victims' identities in rape cases. While neither the companion nor the TV network, Zee News, identified the woman, police opened an investigation into Zee News after the interview was broadcast, saying too many details about the attack had been revealed.

With files from The Associated Press