Are Delhi lawyers jeopardising justice?

The Lawyers Association's refusal to defend the men accused of the Delhi gang rape might be one step too far.

The recent shocking case of the rape and murder of a young medical student in India has sparked widespread debate about the country’s treatment of women. But it also raises questions over the ethics of their legal code: Recent reports have revealed that the 2500 members of the Lawyers Association in the district of Saket have actively refused to represent the six men accused of the crime in light of the public outcry it has caused worldwide.

Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that passions are inflamed to the degree that protestors have called for the death penalty. But what are the repercussions this legal protest might have for justice in India?

In the UK, barristers are regulated by the Bar Standards Board, which sets out that:

 A barrister who supplies advocacy services must not withhold those services on the ground that the nature of the case is objectionable to him or to any section of the public.

The regulations go on to state that a barrister must comply with the "Cab-rank rule," which means that they must accept any instructions from a field in which they profess to practice. India’s regulations are, interestingly, not too dissimilar. The Bar Council of India’s (BCI) states that an advocate "is bound to accept any brief".

This rule is qualified by an addition that says that “special circumstances may justify his refusal to accept a particular brief”. But what constitutes special enough circumstances to jeopardise justice? The right to a fair trial falls under Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; if it’s deemed important enough to feature there then its merit can’t be just be dismissed.

AFP reported  that one member of the Saket District Bar Council, Sanjay Kumar, spoke on behalf of the lawyers:

"We have decided that no lawyer will stand up to defend them. It would be immoral to defend the case".

He goes on to say that the advocates have taken the decision to "stay away" from the case in order to guarantee "speedy justice". This seems outrageous: justice should be just. It should be allowed to take its course naturally, without intervening factors that might artificially achieve it.

One lawyer who has come forward to represent two of the accused, Manohar Lal Sharma, has been insistent that his clients should have access to a fair trial. Sadly this lawyer is acting with a different set of warped motivations. He declared that "I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady", placing the blame for her death “wholly” on the victim. Sharma not only personifies the serious issues India has with its perception of women, but also displays a clear misunderstanding amongst its lawyers.

Advocates involved in this case have openly passed judgement on the accused: the Saket District Lawyers’ Association made an assumption of guilt, while Manohar Lal Sharma deemed the men innocent, and is therefore willing to defend them. What is unfortunately forgotten amongst all this is that it isn’t a lawyer’s job to make judgement - that is up to the judge and jury.

If recent reports that the accused are being tortured in order to force a guilty plea are true, then a fair trial is even more imperative for the sake of justice. This in no way suggests that the accused should be emancipated without trial, or that they have not likely done wrong, but it is important to remember that the stance should be ‘innocent until proven guilty’. How can justice be served and guilty men adequately punished if a fair trial has not ensued?

Protesters demonstrating against rape in Delhi. Photograph: Getty Images
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times