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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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle